Category: Reviews

Giant Days, Vol. 2 by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Max Sarin

I will keep telling you to read John Allison’s comics until either you do so or you stop listening to me entirely. So take that part as read — like Scarygoround and Bad Machinery , Giant Days is a lovely mix of smart dialogue and real characters and quirky situations. Though Giant Days, being set away from Tackleford, those quirky situations are less likely to involve dimensional portals and selkies and alien potato creatures. (At least so far….)

Volume Two finishes up the first term at an unnamed British University for our three main characters — Susan and Daisy and Esther — who have a big formal dance, and a big visit back to Susan’s hometown during the break, and the big finals, and then…um…a big new boyfriend for Esther? (Parallelism can only go so far, it seems.)

These four issues also see the big art hand-off, as original artist Lissa Treiman bows out after what was supposed to be the six-issue mini-series and Max Sarin steps in. To my eye, Sarin’s lines are a bit thinner than Treiman’s, and his art seem to have less depth…but, then, when does anyone ever think the new artist on a favorite comic is an improvement? He does a good job, and I’m sure I’ll bitterly resent it if he ever leaves Giant Days and someone else takes over.

So: female-focused writing, with believable people and real-world situations and some of the best dialogue available in comics anywhere. What are you waiting for?

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Box Office Democracy: Don’t Breathe

It’s hard to describe why Don’t Breathe had me so consistently scared while I was watching it… it almost seems like dream logic at this point a couple days removed from viewing. There’s a very clever sequence where they just quietly show you the house that 85% of the movie is going to take place in, and they do it by just having the camera pass through the house. It goes down one hallway, up through the ceiling and through the second floor in a kind of transparent Chekhov’s single-family home kind of thing, and while I knew it was guaranteed nothing terrible would happen during this sequence I could barely look at the screen. The sense of menace during Don’t Breathe was so powerful and pervasive that even when the movie stumbled with character or an overly long climax I couldn’t look away.

I understand that characters in horror movies often have to be quick sketches to properly get to the action in the allotted runtime, but Don’t Breathe might be skimping on the characters a little too much. It’s hard to root for characters that are criminals, especially when the crime is robbing a blind man, so the film goes way over the top to try and give us characters we can try and root for. Rocky (Jane Levy) has an abusive mother so extreme that Eminem would find it a little far-fetched. She’s just robbing houses to save up enough money to take her little sister and move her to California and a new start. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is a thief but a very practical one with a strict code about what they steal to maximize safety and minimize legal risk. He robs people but he also refuses to consider moving away because he has to take care of his aging father. Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend, is more of a cliché troublemaker and, well, they show him getting murdered in the trailer so he doesn’t last very long. They want us to think these people are ok even though they do bad things, and it didn’t work for me at all. It took so much more for me to view these kids as sympathetic characters.

They had to make the robbery victim so much worse to get me to root for those characters; to turn him from victim to monster, and they do it with relish and gusto. I’m getting in to some spoilers here so this is your opportunity to turn back and not know.

<clicks away to check email while spoilerphobes leave>

We find out early in the second act that our blind homeowner has a woman chained up in his basement— not just any woman but the woman who killed his daughter in a car accident. It flips the equation on us: sure these kids are thieves, but this guy is a kidnapper. Kidnapping is a worse crime than robbery, and so we have our proper good versus evil story restored to us. Much later in the film we discover that he had impregnated the kidnapped woman and plans to do the same to Rocky in a intensely uncomfortable artificial insemination scene. While being one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever seen committed to film, it was nice to see it done without emphasizing the sexual aspects of Rocky’s peril. We see her experience this horror through angles that accentuate that she’s helpless and terrified, but that don’t linger on her being exposed or whatever. (Her cut jeans do seem to magically fix themselves when she escapes and needs to run around more, but I’m willing to let that go for propriety and avoiding an NC-17 rating.)

When I saw the first trailer for Don’t Breathe, the one that focused heavily on the sequence with the lights out in the basement, I thought that someone had decided to make an entire movie out of the night vision sequence at the end of The Silence of the Lambs and how torturous that would be to watch. Instead I got the scariest movie I’ve seen so far this year, a frightening little gem that might not play fair the entire time (every blind person is not Daredevil) but delivers where it counts. We’re coming up on the big horror season (I could see having horror movies in this space for the next month looking at the calendar) and it’s exciting to see the gauntlet thrown down so convincingly ahead of the parade of remakes (Blair Witch) and hastily reskinned versions of Alien (Morgan) coming down the pipe.

Box Office Democracy: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings fills a void I didn’t realize had grown in the movie landscape until I was watching it— it’s an earnest adventure movie for all ages without a trace of camp. There’s very little winking at the audience, there are no topical references, and the celebrity voice actors even try not to sound like themselves. It is refreshingly straight-laced and serious about the mythology in a way that seems lost sometimes even among supposedly serious films. It’s easy to get lost in the wonder of the story because everything is pushing you to do exactly that. I’ve scarcely been so happy to be lost in a film.

Kubo is like a fairy tale that you forgot. It combines a litany of familiar tropes like evil elders, a bumbling but noble sidekick, and the enduring magical power of parental love and combines it in to something that feels timeless, more a Monet than a paint-by-number. It’s a fairly basic hero’s journey story— Kubo has his life destroyed and must flee with only a few magical artifacts to protect him, and must gather legendary items to defeat the evil moon king. The artifacts in question don’t actually seem super helpful in defeating the villain, but that’s never what these things are really about. If I want to nitpick the metaphor gets a little clunky at times and might completely break down in the film’s climax, but I was consistently entertained and the last shot is killer so the rest is meaningless details.

There’s a level of base discomfort one can get from watching a movie so clearly trying to be Japanese but with no Japanese people in anywhere in the writing or directing credits. This is further compounded when white people voice all of the principal characters. It didn’t feel disrespectful to me, it felt tone consistent with the fables and myths I was familiar with from taking a few East Asian literature classes in college, but it isn’t my place to tell other people what is or is not over their boundaries for a piece of media like this. In a perfect world I would like to see movies like these, love letters to legitimate cultural artifacts, have more people from that culture playing the roles, but I understand that that isn’t where Hollywood is right now. I can’t find any Japanese people criticizing the film on these grounds, so I’m content to enjoy the movie and hope for the time when representation is a little better.

Representation issues aside the cast is uniformly fantastic. Charlize Theron is tiptoeing this line between loving maternal figure and fierce protector and absolutely nails it. Matthew McConaughey gives his strongest performance since winning an Oscar, and it’s probably not even worth looking up what those movies are to figure out how much of a compliment this is. Art Parkinson does most of the heavy lifting in the movie and might finally be moving away from being “that kid who plays Rickon Stark”, if he can keep doing work like this (or any work where he gets actual lines). Ralph Fiennes is such an unexpected delight and is wonderfully understated, but I couldn’t help but think that David Carradine would have 100% gotten that role if he were alive. Rooney Mara is going to be in my nightmares for her exquisitely creepy work. I’ve already mentioned this, but the greatest part of all of this work is the actors are willing to disappear in to the role instead of just sounding like themselves and cashing a big paycheck. I’m especially impressed with McConaughey, who even in his best work sounds an awful lot like himself but manages to fall away in to the part here.

Kubo and the Two Strings was a movie I wasn’t excited to see, it didn’t grab me from the trailer and it was put in a week that just seemed to scream “we’re done putting out the big movies this summer, here’s what’s left over” and I was so pleasantly surprised. Kubo is a strong contender for best animated movie of the year and could probably make a run at best action movie. I loved how it had a childlike sense of adventure built-in, but didn’t feel childish in the way a lot of kids movies can. It seems to be cursed to never find an audience, perhaps because it wasn’t willing to pitch itself as young as possible but it deserves to be a bigger hit. Kubo and the Two Strings is the best movie I’ve ever seen from Laika, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come and that the soft opening numbers don’t scare them back to The Boxtrolls or similar fare.

REVIEW: Gotham: The Complete Second Season

REVIEW: Gotham: The Complete Second Season

Gotham S2 BD1Last year, Gotham debuted on Fox amidst a lot of hoopla and generally positive notices. I, however, found the series woefully inept with ham-fisted dialogue and implausible plotting, while ignoring the source material to the point of being unrecognizable. I apparently was in the minority since the ratings were strong and it got a renewal.

Gotham: The Complete Second Season is out now on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment and while it is markedly improved, it apparently has decided to embrace bad writing and worse plotting since people seemed to like it.

With the core players established, the second season decided to offer up two long arcs, with the winter hiatus separating them. In the first arc, we have the arrival of Theo Galavan (James Frain) and his sister Tabitha (Jessica Lucas), arrive in Gotham and we learn he’s here to settle old family scores as we learn of the intertwined relationships between the Waynes, Galavans, and Dumas. To accomplish this, Theo orchestrates events so he’s seen as a hero and rides his popularity to become Mayor.

He’s secretly working with the Order of St. Dumas which has arrived in Gotham and activates Theo as their Azrael, wasting Ron Rifkin as the organization’s leader.

James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), on the force, off the force, suspected of criminal mischief, and more, seems to be the only one to see through the nonsense (let alone the series ignoring how one registers to run and runs for an office, totally skipped over). Theo grabs the psychotic Barnaba (Erin Richards) and uses her as a weapon against Gordon. That doesn’t work and Gordon seemingly kills Galavan, ending a threat to the city. Gordon continues to have a prickly relationship with new commissioner Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis), who can’t seem to make up his mind whether Gordon is straight or crooked or just nuts.

During all this noise, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has chosen to live on the streets and allies himself with Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) and they get caught up in the Galvan silliness and Bruce does something fairly cold, worrying Selina his PTSD is getting worse.

The second half of the season brings us to Arkham Asylum and Prof. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong), who is working for the Court of Owls to make monsters out of humans for reasons unknown. Selina gets trapped in the Asylum as does an undercover Gordon. Bruce, meanwhile, finally figures out who shot his parents (it is not Joe Chill on orders from Lew Moxon) and tracks him down. In theory, by figuring this out at age 11 or 12, he gets the justice he craves and never becomes Batman but that’s entirely ignored.

Meanwhile, poor Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) hangs out with Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), no fully schizophrenic and murderous on his own. Then he finds his birth father (Paul Ruebens) and gets a new home only to find it filled with vicious family who do not like to share, once more wrecking Oswald’s fragile psyche.

Back art Arkham, Strange trains Basil Karlo (Brian McManamon) to impersonate Gordon, and does a lousy job, but no one seems to notice because everyone on this series is apparently clueless. The season ends with Strange exposed, the Court ready to take action, Gordon on the run in search of pregnant Lee (Morena Baccarin) and monsters wandering the city.

The writing continues to lack subtlety and none of the character arcs make a lick of sense. And yet, this mess of a show remains compelling viewing and it has its adherents.

All 22 noisy, mindless episodes are contained in the combo pack along with Digital HD. There are a nice assortment of extras to round out the package including the requisite Gotham: 2015 Comic Con Panel; Gotham by Noir Light, a look at the show’s use of light and shadow; Alfred: Batman’s Greatest Ally, regardless of how ill-used Alfred (Sean Pertwee) was used this season; Cold Hearted – The Tale of Victor Fries; and some character featurettes.

REVIEW: The Huntsman: Winter’s War

REVIEW: The Huntsman: Winter’s War

The HuntsmanFairy Tales are also cautionary tales, a way to teach morals and values to children at a time when the majority of the populace couldn’t read or write. It wasn’t until the last four centuries or so when we began writing it all down and solidifying the variations. Even today, people take the classics and reinterpret them for new generations, bringing in modern themes and issues, making them more relevant.

The cautionary tale to take from The Huntsman: Winter’s War is that you have to have something interesting to say. The preceding film, Snow White and the Huntsman, gave us a revisionist Snow White in the form of plucky Kristen Stewart, a modern day action heroine that made her a proactive player in the classic German tale.

Given behind the scenes shenanigans, Stewart was out of the proposed sequel with the emphasis shifting to the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and giving him a new romantic interest and a cool threat in the Snow Queen, loosely taken from Hans Christian Anderson’s story. By making Freya (Emily Blunt) the wicked Queen Ravenna’s (Charlize Theron) younger sister, we now have an interesting dynamic to play with.

Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos’s screenplay gives us a lengthy prologue set before the first film and setting Freya has had an affair with a nobleman and given birth to a love child although Andrew (Colin Morgan) has inexplicably killed the child and something goes eerily cold within Freya. We’re told she leaves the kingdom to go find her own castle and land to rule with an icy heart and matching powers (shades of Elsa). Lacking her own child, she orders the land’s children taken from their loving homes and brought to the castle to be trained.

Her two best grow up to become Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) and of course they have a forbidden romance, which Freya somehow learns about minutes after they consummate their bond. She uses her powers to make each think the other is gone and goes about conquering other lands.

Pause to insert the first film. Now, Freya wants her sister’s enchanted mirror and sends her army out to find it, which Eric has come to protect, aided by the comic relief duo of dwarf ally Nion (Nick Frost) and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon).  When Sara finds them, misunderstandings and hard feelings take time to, ahem, thaw but they realize keeping Freya from the mirror comes first. Along the way, they collect female dwarves Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach) so the comic relief can have some romance.

Ravenna is resurrected, the sisters bicker and play chess, and the good guys arrive to prevail.

Ho hum. All the potential for interesting characters, interesting dialogue and a riveting story was avoided in the favor of boring action sequences, a phoned in score from James Newton Howard, and perfunctory direction from special effects guru Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, making his debut.

There is literally nothing to recommend this dreary tale, out now from Universal Home Entertainment. The high definition transfer is fine, capturing the crystal blues to the deep shadows and the audio track is its match. The Blu-ray combo set comes with a Digital HD copy and arrives in the theatrical and extended version, the latter containing about six more minutes of tedium.

Bonus features include Two Queens and Two Warriors as the female stars talk about the project’s allure; Meet the Dwarfs; Magic All Around, a making of featurette; Deleted Scenes with Commentary (several of which should have made the final cut); Gag Reel; Dressed To Kill with Academy Award®-winning costumer Colleen Atwood discussing the lush outfits worn; Love Conquers All; and a Feature Commentary by director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan I couldn’t bring myself to endure.

Box Office Democracy: Sausage Party

It’s a shame there’s no outlet in our current media landscape for R-rated sketches written by high profile talent. There’s Funny or Die and its ilk, I suppose, but I can’t imagine the money there is anything like it is for a feature-length film. I’m pretty sure there’s a good eight-minute sketch to be made out of Sausage Party that would be, if not quite to my taste, generally enjoyable but instead it’s this endless rehash of the same five or six jokes that seems to drag on forever and ever but only takes 90 minutes.

Maybe I’m becoming too old and stodgy to enjoy comedy anymore, but I just don’t think the idea of a hot dog and a bun having sex is funny enough to be the anchor for an entire movie. This is the joke of this movie. Not the only joke, there’s a literal douche who is also a figurative douche and the whole thing with food being alive and not knowing it’s going to be eaten, but the hot dog bun sex thing is the big one— we start with it, we end with it, it comes up amazingly often, and it isn’t really that funny. They try to spice it up in the second act by adding a lesbian taco, and let me tell you, what this movie didn’t need was a greater variety of speculative food intimacy (but it’s clearly what the producers thought it needed as the whole film concludes with a massive food orgy).

Sausage Party is, when it isn’t a hastily constructed vehicle for bad jokes, a takedown of religion. The food thinks they’re going to heaven when they’re selected by humans (called “The Gods”) because they have been tricked by a consortium of non-perishable food items that have seen the cycle play out for some time and invented the story to make the food less afraid of their impending horrible deaths. I would say that it’s the screenplay embodiment of the arrogant attitude about other people’s personal beliefs you get from taking one college-level philosophy class, but Ricky Gervais made that movie seven years ago and it was The Invention of Lying so Sausage Party isn’t even original in being a smarmy ball of quasi-intellectual tripe.

It’s hard to get too bothered by bad representation in a movie that feels as insubstantial as Sausage Party. If a few Jewish writers want the only Jewish character in their movie to be a nebbishy Woody Allen stereotype, I don’t have any specific problem with that as a Jewish man. I’m a little less confident that the right choice was to make an equally stereotypical Arab character and have that character be voiced by David Krumholtz. Having those two characters end up screwing each other senseless in the aforementioned giant food orgy plays in to some ugly stereotypes vis a vis masculinity with regards to both communities, but I doubt this is something that went through the head of literally anyone involved so it’s more a sin of ignorance than malice. I’m slightly less willing to be charitable about the decision to have Bill Hader play both a Native American stereotype and a Mexican one in the same movie, but every moment I spend thinking about that is one less moment I get to spend never thinking about Sausage Party again.

It’s possible I’m simply too old for Sausage Party. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was one of the funniest movies I had ever seen when I was 15 years old and I was an evangelist for it among my friends. Perhaps Sausage Party is sending the same ripples through teenagers today and I’m out of touch or simply heard enough swear words in my life that reciting them as rapidly and randomly as possible doesn’t make my laugh the way it did when I was younger, but I don’t believe it. I firmly believe Sausage Party is a bad and lazy movie, but there were enough laughs in my theater to give me this slight moment of pause.

REVIEW: 11.22.63

11.22.63Based on the reviews, I knew I wanted to read 11.22.63 but its sheer size was, for some reason daunting. I figured maybe I’d just listen to it as an audiobook but those 30 hours sit waiting for me. Then, Hulu did me the favor of condensing it down to an eight-hour miniseries, which they released on DVD last week. I still will listen to the original, but this will do for now.

The idea of being able to go back in time and alter a key historic moment is always ripe for a good yarn. Heck, my Crazy 8 Press compatriots and I just did a book of alternate histories with Altered States of the Union. One of those moments that has tempted storytellers from Gene Roddenberry to King has been the untimely death of President John F. Kennedy.

Here, the master of the macabre sends an unprepared guy, Jake Epping (James Franco), back to Oct. 21, 1960 (Sept. 9,1958 in the book) and slowly, he realizes he’s the right guy to make a major difference. The local diner run by his friend Al (Chris Cooper) has a secret: there’s a door leading to the past. Sort of like SF Realism as opposed to Magical Realism. Anyway, Al’s been through the door and has been meticulously been figuring out how to stop Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) from firing on the presidential motorcade. The problem is that Al is dying from cancer so convinces Jake to finish the plan.

Events conspire to turn the actual deed over to Jake and the miniseries follows his efforts. Complicating his altruistic missions is that time itself doesn’t want to be changed. That’s an interesting obstacle to be overcome.

A more mundane problem is that Jake needs cash to operate with and uses his future knowledge to lay down bets and win via gambling. A tried and true notion but belabored here and eventually, we find this English teacher isn’t as much the Everyman we’re initially led to believe he is. In some ways, Franco is the wrong guy for the part despite his appeal and acting chops.

Other problems include his falling for Sadie (Sarah Gadon), who teaches at the school he will one day be working at. Jake befriends Bill (George McKay), but how much should he know about the future? And there’s the CIA, of course. We toy with the question whether or not Oswald worked alone and the role his mother and wife played in his choices.

The middle chapters meander but the final two make up for it, nicely ratcheting up the tension until the climax and conclusion (not spoiled here). Writer Bridget Carpenter (who tossed in some lovely King Easter eggs) and director Kevin Macdonald do an overall nice job and Hulu gets credit for tackling this as one of the earliest original productions.

The eight-part production, overseen by J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot team, looks authentic and the overall package is just swell. The DVD transfer is crisp, both looking and sounding strong. The Blu-ray edition contains the exclusive 15 minute featurette “When the Future Fights Back” with the crew talking about the book and mounting the adaptation.

Box Office Democracy: Suicide Squad

I usually try to avoid reading reviews of movies before I go see them but the explosion of negativity that came out as soon as the embargo dropped last week made it utterly impossible to see Suicide Squad completely untainted. Combined with some scheduling snafus that kept me from seeing the film until Monday morning I walked into the theater with a strong preconception that this was going to be a bad movie. And it was— Suicide Squad is a bad movie, but it isn’t the end of western cinema, it isn’t the worst superhero movie ever made, it isn’t even the worst superhero movie released this year from Warner Bros that Ben Affleck is in. At some points it’s even endearingly bad, the kind of movie that could end up with a cult following. I doubt it will because of all the times it’s just a bland kind of bad and the crushing weight of the perpetual DC cinematic failures, but there are traces of a spark here.

Suicide Squad is an aggressively bland movie. Everything but Harley Quinn seems to be colored in various shades of grey or, at best, muted colors. The sets are drab and the exteriors are very obviously studio back lots pumped in with a smoke machine. Even the most common bad guys are an endless supply of vaguely human cannon fodder made out of black goo. There’s no personality to the environments, the objectives, or most of the characters. I just can’t care about this team of warriors killing wave after wave of generic nothing henchmen to foil an evil plot that looks menacing, but has no established stakes until the movie is 90% over. I get that the government has a vested interest in not having mysterious interdimensional entities establishing swirling vortexes above major cities, but if you don’t tell me what it does it becomes entirely generic.

Even if Suicide Squad were, somehow, a more interesting movie it wouldn’t save it because it’s a stunningly misogynist and racist movie. I might be at odds with some others in the comics community by saying this but I never thought Harley Quinn started as a particularly progressive character. She got there when they teamed her with Poison Ivy and there have been more and less good depictions of her over the years but this is definitely a bottom-of-the-barrel portrayal. Harley is a living breathing failure of the Bechdel Test because literally every action she takes is about a man, usually The Joker but sometimes Deadshot. It’s challenging to give this critique because Margot Robbie does such a good job taking the poorly-written character she’s given and wringing every bit of character she can out of it. There’s a moment where she turns to bow when she exits a scene that I swear is frame-for-frame perfect with an appearance on Batman: The Animated Series and that’s quite a commitment to the character.

If we want to hit sexism and racism in one character it would be in El Diablo. I’m not familiar with this version of the character at all, he must be from after my time as a regular comic book reader, but I sincerely hope that he has origins more distinct than this Mexican gangster caricature. It’s like David Ayer learned five things about Mexican gangs when he was writing Training Day and decided that he would put those things in every movie he wrote from then on. The movie also very much wants us to believe that El Diablo is the real victim of the time he got mad and incinerated his entire family in a scene that was several notches over my comfort zone in terms of similarity to real-world domestic violence. I understand that they’re trying for a metaphor here, but there’s basically no way the family man character they expect me to believe Deadpool is would be cool with what El Diablo did. Oh, and when El Diablo gets to his most powerful level, he inexplicably turns in to a giant flaming Aztec caricature, it’s very strange juxtaposed with his seemingly Catholic world view up until then. It’s as if they decided if they treated Will Smith and Viola Davis well, they could just do the rest of their minority characters as rough ethnic sketches.

I suppose I can’t get out of this without talking about Jared Leto’s performance as The Joker because of how it dominated the hype campaign for this movie despite being a vanishingly small part, all things considered. Leto does not do good work. He seems to be doing an impression of Heath Ledger’s performance from The Dark Knight but with all of the subtlety replaced by the kind of grunting you would get if you asked a 12 year-old what sex sounded like. He’s easily the worst live action depiction of the character, but you can tell that every time they called “cut” he was convinced that he nailed it. There are good acting performances in this movie, I’ve already shouted out Robbie, and think Viola Davis deserves kudos for taking a part that in another era would have faded in to the background and created one of the scariest characters in a movie that includes a crocodile monster. Will Smith is also doing good work, although we’re clearly getting “action movie” Will Smith and not “actually trying his hardest” Will Smith, but it doesn’t matter. Smith is a sublime talent as a movie star because he makes action nonsense seem serious and he nails the quiet moments as well as the funny ones.

At this point I don’t know what needs to change at DC Entertainment before they start putting out movies that aren’t dreary disasters. I suppose they would have to stop making quite so much money, but they hold their opening weekend numbers very badly and the critical derision has got to hurt especially when Marvel puts out bigger numbers and gets better reviews. I’ve heard over and over that there are shakeups internally and that things are going to get better, but it never does. The Comic Con footage of Justice League looked good but after seeing this and Batman v Superman how am I supposed to believe that the people who signed off on those movies even have any idea what a good movie looks like? It’s time for a change, but does anyone who could make that change care as long as the money comes in?

John Ostrander Reviews the Suicide Squad!

suicide Squad world premiere

Warning! Danger! Spoilers! I saw the movie, I’m going to talk about the movie, there may be some plot spillage. Yadda yadda yadda.

John Ostrander DivaAs we start, I think you should know my biases. I think you should know any critics’ bias. Myself, I use them mostly as consumer reporters. If I find a critic whose tastes largely coincide with mine, I tend to trust them more. The late great Roger Ebert was one. Knowing who is giving you their opinion is important; what does their opinion matter if you don’t trust them?

Regarding the Suicide Squad movie, well, I’m biased. I’m prejudiced. I have a vested interest in its success. I want it to succeed. However, if I didn’t like it, I’d be more likely just to keep my trap shut.

My trap is open.

I really liked the film. Not perfect by a long shot, but a really good time in the movie theater. And for me a lot of it was just amazing. The look, the detail, the feel of the film is not something I’ve seen in superhero movies before.

Chief for me were the performances, starting with Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. All the other characters in the Squad, both the comic and the movie, were created by others. In the comic especially I would re-define and expand on them but they were established characters. Amanda Waller was my creation and Viola Davis embodied her to perfection. I was happy when she was cast, I was delighted when I saw her in the trailers, and I was ecstatic when I saw her in the film. Davis has Amanda’s voice, her look, and her attitude. I was delighted at the after-party when I got a chance to see her face-to-face and tell her how much I enjoyed her performance.

Next up is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. She is sexy, innocent, funny, lethal, crazy and dangerous. And she’s a thief – she steals just about every scene she’s in.

Let’s look at Will Smith as Deadshot. Some folks have objected that he’s not my Deadshot. No, he isn’t and that’s just fine by me. My Deadshot was not the character as he had been created or portrayed prior to my appropriating him for the Squad. Gail Simone’s version was not exactly my version either. You don’t expect two actors who play the same character in different versions to be identical so why expect those versions in different stories to be identical? Smith did a great job – intense, cynical, with a weak spot for his daughter (although I thought their last scene together had a disturbing element). Smith is a fine actor and one of the world’s biggest stars; he sure as hell wasn’t slumming here and he made Deadshot his own – which is exactly what he was supposed to do.

Last paragraph, I talked about you wouldn’t expect two actors playing the same character in different stories to give identical performances. That really applies to Jared Leto as the Joker. He crafted an entirely new version of the character from the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. That’s absolutely necessary and it’s a different look. Like Pygmalion, he creates a woman that he can love; in this case, it’s Harley Quinn. If we accept his love for her (and her love for him) as genuine, does that make him less of a sociopath? Ledger’s Joker loved no one except, perhaps, Batman. He’s no less strange or deadly but his entire plotline revolves around being re-united with Harley.

Jay Hernandez has a significant role as Diablo and I would have liked to see more of the character. He has a terrific and horrifying back-story but this is a character who is trying to do good even as (I think) he believes he is beyond redemption.

Likewise, I would have liked to see more of Jai Courtney as Boomerang. As Christopher Walken says of cowbell, you can never have too much Boomerang. He’s very much as I wrote him in the Squad – he knows what he is and he likes it. In that respect, Boomerang is very well adjusted. Which is scary.

There’s a surprising theme running through the movie; there is a lot about love. Joker and Harley’s love, yes; Deadshot’s love for his daughter; Diablo’s love (and guilt and remorse) for his family; Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman)’s love for June Moone (Cara Delevingne) while June’s alter ego, the Enchantress, appears to love her brother. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) loves her dead husband and carries his soul in her blade (OK, a lot of the relationships are not the healthiest in this film). Even with Amanda there’s a brief phone call and there’s tenderness and love for whoever she’s speaking with. Love shapes and forms a lot of the characters and they, in turn, mold the story.

Are their problems with the film? Sure. The antagonist(s) are not well defined and, to my mind, you need a good antagonist to help define the protagonist(s). It’s the antagonist who usually sets the plot in motion and it is defined by what they want. The story is a little more generic “we have to save the world” than I usually did; I always liked having one foot squarely in reality.

I also liked having a political and/or social edge in my Squad stories. That would also give a greater feel of reality and I don’t see that here.

That said, my artistic DNA is all over the place. This is The Dirty Dozen with supervillains and that’s my concept. They did that and did it well.

I know some of the critics, both in print and online, do not like the movie. That’s okay; everyone has a right to their own opinion even when it’s wrong. My problem is that, at least with some of the media reviews, is that the critic is also tired of superhero and “tentpole” films and, overtly or covertly, would like to see their end. Look, I get it – they have to see all the films out there and they must be tired of all the blockbusters.

If every superhero film is not The Dark Knight, they’ll bitch. I think that’s going on here to a certain degree. Just as I came prepared to love the movie, they came prepared to hate it.

My late wife, Kim Yale, was a movie critic for a while for a small suburban newspaper in the Chicago area and I went with her to some of the movie screenings. Don’t tell me that some of the critics didn’t come with pre-conceived attitudes to some films. I know better. I saw and heard it.

As for some of the online haters – if a film doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion, it is wrong. Female Ghostbusters, a black Deadshot, Ben Affleck as Batman (Affleck, by the way, does cameos as both Batman and Bruce Wayne in Suicide Squad and is terrific) – these are all sins and must be decried.

Give me a fucking break.

Look, you can be the most important critic on Suicide Squad. In this case, your voice is your money. You decide if you want to see the movie and then go. If you like it, tell others. I guess you could also tell them if you didn’t like it but you don’t have to. I won’t mind.

If the film is financially successful (and, from what I’ve seen as this review is being written, it’s on track for a pretty good opening weekend), then Warners will be encouraged to do a sequel. And I hope they do. They made a good film this time and I believe they’ll do it even better next time around.

It’s your call.Suicide Squad Times Square

REVIEW: Batman: The Killing Joke

Killing JokeIn 1984 (or thereabouts) Alan Moore was asked to write a Batman one-shot for artist Brian Bolland. Between the arrival of the script and the publication of the Prestige Format Batman: The Killing Joke, Moore went on to become the most popular and best-selling comics writer of the decade. One of the reasons was that unlike his peers, he dug deeply into what made the heroes and villains tick and how they related to one another.

As a result of the strong writing and the brilliant artwork, the one-shot went on to become an acclaimed title that has remained in print ever since. Its little surprise, then, that Warner Animation finally turned their attention to adapting it for their direct-to-video line of films. They sparred little expense, bringing in crime writer Brian Azzarello and reuniting the popular Batman: The Animated Series vocal duo of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Warner even let them adapt without regard to ratings and thus we have the first R-rated animated film from the studio.

I just wish it was good.

The film is really two separate stories, the second of which was the adaptation. Adapting 48 pages means there’s a lot of time left for the usual 77 minute production. Since the inciting incident is the Joker’s shooting of Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), it made sense to reintroduce viewers to Babs and her Batgirl alter ego. Here, Azzarello displays a rather poor understanding of heroism or women.

As depicted here, Barbara has been Batman’s partner for three years. No mention of a Robin or other players. She clumsily allows an armored car robbery slip through her fingers, but not before she caught the fancy of the one of the criminals, “Paris Franz” (Maury Sterling). He somehow gets under her skin, forces her to make mistakes and earns Batman’s ire until he tells her to stay away. She, of course, can’t. The first problem is that Franz is not at all charismatic or interesting so the attraction makes little sense. More importantly, she’s acting like a rookie not a veteran.

Batman Killing JokeThere’s little heroic about her actions, little sympathy established for her character which is vital for what is to come. Worse, Azzarello decides that the one thing she initiates is having sex with Batman, in public, ripping her clothes off to take him right then and there. Not a great message being sent to the female audience.

For some reason, this has been her last case and in the meantime, Batman decides he needs to go pay the joker a visit, saying he’s been thinking about their relationship. It’d be nice if something in the first half of the film actually led us to this moment. And from there, we’re off and running.

As an adaptation it’s fine if uninspired. Why they decided to stick a song and dance number in the middle of James Gordon’s psychological torture is one of those imponderables. Yes, it’s violent, and the sexually abuse the comic alluded to is hinted at here.

But, in the end, it’s cold and not as involving as the source material and that’s a disappointment.

The-killing-joke-animated-movie-barbara-gordon-batgirlThe Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD combo pack is out from Warner Home Entertainment this week and the 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray is just fine to watch. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 let’s us enjoy Composers Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis effective score.

The Special Features are pretty standard including a handful of contemporary trailers and the usual Sneak Peek at DC Universe’s Next Animated Movie (8:14), which is the eagerly anticipated Justice League Dark.

There are just two featurettes, the first being Madness Set to Music (11:54) where the composers and other talking heads extol the freedom of working on the story. The trio had previously worked on the musical episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and they have clear affection for the medium.

Mike Carlin, Dan DiDio, and assorted others chime in on Batman: The Killing Joke: The Many Sides of the Joker (17:43), which should have offered up a better chronology since his first appearance in 1940 but uses lovely examples of his appearances throughout the years. Some attention should have been paid to the filmed versions of the Clown Prince of Crime from Cesar Romero to Jack Nicholson and even Jared Leto. Ah well.

Finally, From the DC Comics Vault offers up Batman: The Animated Series: “Christmas with the Joker” (22:26) and The New Batman Adventures: “Old Wounds” (21:11) which are nice to see but feel out of place given the tonality of the main feature.