Kong: Skull Island

Recommendation: YES

Summary: Japanese and American World War 2 pilots crashland on a beach and promptly resume trying to kill each other until they are rudely interrupted by a living, breathing challenge to their sense of significance. Flash forward to the end of the Vietnam War and a ragtag team of scientists, a mercenary, a photojournalist, and disgruntled soldiers take part in a “geologic survey” of an unexplored island. Things go wrong.

Would you take this moment to once again welcome King Kong, grandpappy of the American movie monsters, to the cutting edge of trends in big budget Western film making. In this case, the cutting edge is not the bloat and operatic excess of Peter Jackson’s 2005 entry, nor the mind blowing technical wizardry of the 1933 original. No, in this case it’s the trend of plucking up unproven indie film makers with one or two tiny movies under their belt and unmaking their individuality in the fires of Hollywood. Double points for Kong: Skull Island being an entry in one of the very many shared cinematic universe exercises (see Marvel, DC, the Universal Monsters, to an extent Star Wars, and now Transformers?). But I’ll be damned if this film didn’t manage to sneak a bit of persinality in with its monster meyham, much in kind with Gareth Edwards’ Franchise-mate Godzilla (2014). I can’t rightly say whether it’s capital G good or not, but its a heck of a lot more than what the tepid Jurassic World could muster.

So, personality, eh? While Godzilla ’14 was a more slow paced (though some would say glacial), Spielbergian movie with a clear affection for its monsters and a tremendous sense of scale, Kong: Skull Island is tontent to be this weird little pastiche of Vietnam War movies, adventure/monster pictures, and exploitation cinema. There aren’t many PG-13 studio tentpoles that visually evoking something else involving a pole from Cannibal Holocaust. And it’s this “deplorable excess of personality,” to quote a Spielberg film that both Kong and Godzilla quote, that keeps Kong: Skull Island interesting long after its stand out first set piece with Kong.

It is worth noting that muck like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is sparing win its use of its titular beast. However, they differ in that Kong: Skull Island reveals its hand early (King Kong is on screen within the first 5 or so minutes) and its forward momentum. The film is littered with little bits of action that serve to make Skull Island itself an antagonist of sorts. It may come across as episodic at times given its poor human drama, but there is always some sort of threat around the corner as our hapless human cast come face to face with some unpleasant mega fauna. Credit where credit is due, there is a consideration and care put into the creature design that suggests a working ecosystem that is often missing in films that focus on making eerything look as “cool” or deadly as possible.

This does mean that for stretches it feels like the film is more interested in the way in which the environment conspires against the humans than the humans themselves. Outside of the broadest of strokes, this is true. There is an element of political subtext about the villification of soldiers by the media and the US government’s failure to be serious about the fate of its veterans. Every now and then there are flashes of the characters presenting with PTSD. And once in a while, the film comes close to being a genre film take on teh Vietnam War in the vein of Aliens, with low tech enemies ambushing and overwhelming a high tech military detachment.

And then Kong: Skull Island decides to go off and kill off its cast in sudden, gruesome ways, with no comment other than that it is possibly amusing that this moment that would be big in any other movie was totally deflated by a subversion showing the pointlessness of it all.

Having had time to dwell on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as successful at being a “Post-Human” blockbuster as Godzilla, but through different means. While Godzilla focused its attention on the monsters and impressed with its excellent sense of scale, making the human characters feel like insignificant lookers on, Kong: Skull Island never quite masters scale in much the same way. Aside from an early bout between Kong and helicopters, it is rather hard to get a read on how large the beasties are in comparison to the humans. No, Kong: Skull Island is post-human by virtue of its constant winking insistence that at best, humans are a minor annoyance, and at worst, their actions are pitiful and utterly meaningless.

As I said, I can’t tell if all of this is a “good” thing or not, but I can say that it’s fucking weird and commits to its weirdness as much as a franchise picture directed by a relative unknown can. At least much more than, for example, the half-assed satire of Jurassic World, or the defanged Robocop remake. And I’d take fucking weird over polished blandkess any day.

If it continues apace, the MonsterVerse will be one to watch; and the news of the attachment of Michael Dougherty to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters has me very hopeful indeed.

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Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

Monster Fest – Raw

Director: Julia Ducournau

(Yes: Go watch this if you enjoy genre films. Especially if you want to see more great movies directed by women)

Summary: A young vegetarian woman attends the same veterinarian school attended by her parents and currently attended by her older sister. During a hazing ritual, she is pressured by her sister to live up to her family’s legacy and partake in the eating of a raw rabbit liver. Things go wrong.

 

Raw is a striking directorial debut that is hard to pin down. It doesn’t want to stick with any one mood or tone for an extended period of time, choosing instead to wade drunkenly in and out of moments of queasy awkwardness, warm affection, dark humour, and surreal body horror. In the broadest of strokes, you can think of it as a coming of age dramady with a heaping mouthful of cannibalism used as a central metaphor.

And with the specter of cannibalism raised, there’s something I should probably address. I saw Raw at the Monster Fest Travelling Film Festival where it was introduced as a film that made its Cannes audience squirm and mutter with discomfort. There were reports of audience members fainting at a TIFF screening.¬†And yes, some of the Monster Fest audience gasped during our screening. But, and this is important, Raw is not a particularly graphic cannibal movie. Gore hounds do know that whatever gore there is on screen is beautifully detailed and lovingly photographed, but do not go in expecting a splatter film. Most of the gasping occurred during particularly emotionally charged sequences rather than from gory money shots.

What is really impressive about Raw is the¬†assured direction of Ducournau. Her film is an emotionally turbulent one with a keen eye for teasing out horror from mundanity, expressing feminine power and desire, and exploring the awkwardness and hilarity to be found in coming into your own. Whether it be the dark humour in a fellow student offering tips on purging after misunderstanding a traumatic event, the nastiness of verbal sparring between sisters, or the awkwardness and hilariousness of a particular scene involving a disembodied finger, Raw is anchored in a sense of emotional authenticity from the point of view of protagonist Justine. When Justine hungers, the camera leers over the topless body of her attractive room mate, dissecting him through strategic close ups of his muscular flesh, before just as strategically pulling back to show him in his totality. It is a sophisticated use of gaze to comment on a character’s inner conflict.

The film is so anchored to Justine’s POV that beyond making us complicit in her gaze, it makes us subject to her temporal and geographical understanding. When she gets more unhinged the more she indulges, the film gets more unhinged and indulgent. The result is a film that threatens to be coherent before slipping into a bizarre nightmare logic. We lose touch of our surroundings as Justine does. We exist in the moment, blacking out and coming to after some time has elapsed, much like Justine. The film keeps us on the back foot and when it does choose to have things in focus, they are either uncomfortable or surreal. The moments of violence are all the more horrific for how vivid they are. As is the shame that Justine feels after.

 

Raw is a juicy movie. It is rich for dissection, allowing viewers to pick at the scraps of its metaphor. A parable about sexual awakening and sibling rivalry in the vein of Ginger Snaps; a cautionary tale about overindulgence leading one to harm those close to them; a story about the difficulties young women face keeping up appearances in a world that watches and judges their every move; a document of aberrant eating practices such as binging and purging. It feels like a little bit of all these things. And it is all the more powerful for trusting the viewer to stumble into these readings after they’re done cringing.

Decisive Battle

Shin Godzilla is a massive Yes. Amazing fun, would watch again.

Who would have thought the funniest film I’ve seen this year was a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination wreaking havoc on an unprepared population centre, costing thousands of lives. And that too, a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination that pays the majority of its attention to the administrative realities of responding to the abomination rather than the abomination itself.

But yes, Shin Godzilla is a hilarious, biting satire that takes aim at Japanese bureaucracy’s inability to manage a crisis situation because it is too busy being cautious and trying to save face, a screed against a system that privileges seniority and status over competence and lateral thinking, a procedural about organising disaster response (that goes into a ridiculous amount of detail about the procedure involved), an honest to goodness social science fiction movie, a horror movie with particularly haunting imagery, and feature length otakubait. I’m going to be honest and say it ticked a lot of boxes for me, but it really does spend a lot of time with human characters who are largely uninteresting on an individual level. Most audiences aren’t going to like or want that in a Godzilla film, but I ate it up. 

Full disclosure here, my experience with the Godzilla canon starts and ends with Gojira, Godzilla vs Destoroyah, and the 2014 American Godzilla. Roland Emmerich’s monster was rechristened Zilla (for taking the God out of Godzilla) and featured as its own creature in Godzilla: Final Wars, and therefore doesn’t count anymore. So two out of three “proper” Godzilla movies I had seen prior focused a large amount of energy and screen time on the humans. As far as I am concerned, I was primed and ready for a film that had Godzilla as a thing in the background and forcing the humans’ hands. But it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge there is a larger number of films where Godzilla is a character in its own right, and if the response to ’14 Godzilla is any indication, these are the films that have resonated with audiences to a greater extent.

Caveat aside, let’s get into the meat of it.

The first thing to note is that Shin Godzilla serves as a soft reboot of the franchise. Godzilla makes his first ever appearance in this continuity off the coast of Tokyo, causing damage to infrastructure. The Japanese government spends a good while deliberating over what caused the damage, quite reasonably shooting down the idea that it could ever have been the responsibility of a giant, hitherto unknown creature. Where another disaster movie would play this scene straight, there is a hint of the comic in Shin Godzilla, and this is where we get the first clue that it’s got more on its mind than just blowing stuff up. 

When the Japanese government finally come to the realisation that a large, unidentified aquatic animal is indeed responsible for the damage, they spend a great deal of time deliberating about how to fashion a response, whether one is needed, if the creature can even come ashore, and whether or not mobilising the JSDF will shame them with the international community for retaliating against something that is not an aggressor nation. It is now when you start to realise things about what kind of movie Shin Godzilla is. It was around here that it became obvious that the previous hints of comedy were intentional, and that the movie is far more interested in the minutia of governmental bureaucracy in the face of an unprecedented situation. Much like an Edgar Wright film, the comedy comes from the art of film making itself, rather than solely from planting a camera in a room and having funny people improvise. It has impeccable comic timing in its editing, utilising smash cuts to either heighten any criticism a character is making of the current administration’s handling of the situation or to juxtapose unfounded suppositions with actual events, and allowing scenes to breathe in still silence to allow the audience to appreciate the absurdity of the situation the characters find themselves in. 

Even the visual composition of scenes plays into the film’s satirical leanings, with higher ranking members of government being seated at comfortable seats while the lower ranking members are shunted off into the corner, barely in view in most shots. And in one particular scene, a low ranking (and therefore not respected) biologist is brought in as a consultant by a low ranking official, she is seated up against the wall at the far corner of a room, away from all key players. The scene is blocked in a way that forces her to assert herself in order to be heard and considered, and is a great use of visual as metaphor. It is little things like this that I mean when I say the comedy comes from the act of film making rather than just having a locked down camera and improv.

Needless to say, things with Godzilla escalate beyond the Japanese government’s capacity to manage, the US steps in, nuking Tokyo is proposed by the UN and the clock is ticking to solve the Godzilla problem before Japan gets nuked for a third time.

It is evident from its focus on the political and bureaucratic process, that Shin Godzilla is an overtly political film. It takes great pains to follow decision making all the way down and back up the chain of command, showing just how many moving parts there are in actually orchestrating disaster relief, and how any one weak link could result in an entirely ineffective response. The film ends up being nostalgically nationalistic, drawing parallels to how Susanoo defeated Orochi, and positing that the Japan of the past was able to work as a united entity, public, corporate, and governmental bodies coming together to serve the best interests of the country as a whole. It even goes to great lengths to frequently mention how the response coordination is being aided in large part by civilian volunteers, in much the same way volunteers helped with the clean up after Fukushima. It is a very collectivist film in a way a Hollywood production absolutely would not be (with perhaps the exception of Pacific Rim). Even taking the recent American Godzilla, the story focused on Ford Brody’s journey as the US Army’s only bomb technician, or something of the sort. Western cinema seems satisfied with stories of individual achievement in the face of adversary, and Shin Godzilla is quite refreshing in its insistence on having the Japanese government, civilians, and corporations be the protagonist. This may leave the human characters wanting for depth, but this is very much the point of the film. A few characters do stand in as voice pieces for the film’s politics, but the large cast of human characters are effectively interchangeable. The film even does replace its characters from time to time, announcing new job titles in bold on screen text. But it is very much the collective body of the Japanese government that is the main character of this movie.

In some ways, Shin Godzilla is most similar to the absurd and blackly comical Korean creature feature, The Host. Those who have seen it will notice its similar distrust of the United States Government and its occupation and control over the nation. Shin Godzilla is ultimately a more optimistic film, with even the United States offering support when Japan moves to initiate its own end game to stop the Godzilla menace in a possible nod to the United States military’s Operation Tomodachi. That said, the contempt for the US strong arming them into a nuclear ultimatum is palpable, as is the frustration with their pascifist constitution, which reflects the relatively current political climate and interest in reintroducing a Military in Japan.

You may have gathered by now that Shin Godzilla is light on Kaiju action. But when the film shifts focus to Godzilla, it is not afraid to get serious, and even grotesque. Scenes with Big G are appropriately massive and creatively lensed. Director Hideaki Anno (most famously of cult mechs anime Neon Genesis Evangelion) makes effective use of perspective and negative space to communicate Godzilla’s massive size and alien appearance against the Tokyo skyline. Action sequences are all wonderful, whether they be scenes of the JSDF ineffectually firing upon Godzilla, with hundreds upon thousands of tracers converging on a single point, or a particularly awe inspiring night time scene where Godzilla lets its true power be known for the first time. They are all coherently staged and direct the audience’s attention to the most important elements of each shot. It is all the more spectacular to have an uninterrupted, clear view of the carnage than an artificially kinetic, quickly cut sequence. Some of Anno’s cinematic fingerprints make the jump as well. He subtitles everything of significance on screen, including tanks and helicopters. Military deployment scenes focus on synchronised movements, as if it is all a choreographed dance. The film uses montage to highlight the destruction left in Godzilla’s wake. These moments serve as sobering reminders of the human and economic cost of bureaucratic inefficiency, and is once again not something you are likely to see in a Western movie. Sure you’d have your money shots of buildings being toppled, or cut in half by atomic breath as the case may be, but no sombre reminder of what was lost once the monster has moved on to another district.

I think what pleased me most about Shin Godzilla is its insistence on tackling heady subject matter by using the absurd as a rhetorical device. In this way it is similar to the 1954 film. But where Gojira is a haunting, sombre horror movie, Shin Godzilla runs head first into comedy. 

Now, while I can say Shin Godzilla is indeed an interesting, often hilarious, often haunting movie, I am not sure how much of my appreciation came from my familiarity with the tropes Anno used with Evangelion, vague understanding/awareness of the disastrous handling of Fukushima, Operation Tomodachi, and in internet parlance, being a weeb. I don’t know how much of the satire and the use of the Japanese government as the central character of the film would work without at least a passing understanding of Fukushima. I know some of the specific cultural references will pass most audiences over (e.g. Nico Nico Douga scrolling comment text, Susanoo tricking Orochi into drinking sake before their battle – in the subtitles, Orochi is referred to as a hydra), and knowledge of Japan’s JSDF being relegated to a self defence role after WWII. What power will the film have then without this baggage the audience brings in?

Ultimately, given how Kaiju light Shin Godzilla is, will people receive it like the 2014 American Godzilla?

Would now be a good time to mention I liked that one too?

SPOILER TIME:

In keeping with the film’s use of metaphor and parallelism, Godzilla is identified as a cluster of extremophiles, rather than a singular organism. Godzilla is shown metamorphosising into various forms that are better adapted to the situation at hand. His initially shown form can barely function on land, so he transforms. He is under threat, so he transforms again, into a larger, final form.
The point here is this is a collection of smaller entities coming together as a whole organisation, and adapting quickly and effectively to the difficulties that they are presented with, in sharp contrast to the bumbling of the Japanese Government. 
This film is taking Godzilla as metaphor as far as Gojira, and it is glorious.

Don’t Breathe

As horror very much yes. As thriller, no. (Warning regarding sexual violence if you do choose to watch it).

We are in Detroit. A trio of teens break into houses and steal just under $10,000 for various ends? You see, one of these teens has a father who works for a home security company, giving him access to all the keys and gadgets required to pull off a break in. Their fence is playing hard ball and their cut is shrinking with each take. But then they catch wind of the perfect catch, a blind man who lives alone in a deserted neighbourhood. Said blind man came into money after a massive settlement when a rich girl ran over and killed his daughter.
How hard can it be to break into and rob the house of an old blind man?
Don’t Breathe is a big step up technically from the Evil Dead Remake.
It is, in fact technically proficient to surprising degree. It is quite an effective little shocker. On a technical level.
I cannot say that enough.
Everything from the sound design to the grotesque green and yellow colour palette to the camera work all combines to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is incredibly confident. Chekhov’s guns are made evident, the geography of the house is laid out, and a red herring or two is planted all within the first few minutes of the break in. The formal elements all work towards ramping up tension. There is one sequence in particular taking place in a dark basement that is incredibly inventive, and all the more tense for it.
Gosh, even the setting of a decrepit Detroit adds a further layer of desperation to the film.
Okay, okay, point made. On an aesthetic level, Don’t Breathe is hitting out of the park. But what about the characters? They are for the most part your typical morally bankrupt teen slasher characters. Money, the muscle behind our delinquent trio is most likely named after his sole character motivation. I honestly cannot remember the names of the other two characters (though given this is a known deficit of mine, I am not sure I can blame the movie for this). There is the young lady who lives with an abusive mother and who wants to move to California with her younger sister. Then there’s the third dude, whose motivation is “girl, ???, profit,” and his sole character trait is that he spouts Hollywood legal information about how to get away breaking and entering without it being a felony. 
And the old man is some kind of blind super man, capable of incredible displays of sensory perception, beyond what you could probably expect of a war veteran who took shrapnel to the face. His character motivation starts off simple and easy to sympathise with, to get the kids out of his house so he can be at peace with his attack dog. His methods, however are brutal and without sympathy.
Here’s where Don’t Breathe gets interesting in a similar way to You’re Next gets, except without the black comedy inherent in the situation. This is a home invasion thriller where the home invaders are the ones in danger. 
But here is also where things get tricky on a genre level. In You’re Next, you are rooting for the home owners to prevail against the invaders. In Don’t Breathe, you’re rooting for the home owner to prevail against the invaders, who just so happen to be our main characters, the ones we should be rooting for. And this is where Don’t Breathe starts breaking down, when taken as something more than an example of formal discipline.
There are certain audience expectations when it comes to horror movies. Let me explain:
You wouldn’t normally be hoping for an armed veteran to murder a group of teenagers who broke into his house. It is morally questionable at best, but in real life, extra-judicial assassination is too extreme a punishment for the crime. HOWEVER in a horror movie, all bets are off. The genre works on a rather conservative moral compass, where any transgression is punished severely. So in the realm of the movie, the old man had the teens dead to rights. The audience expects and wants the teens’ transgressions to be punished.
But the movie also wants to play like a thriller with a mild socio-economic flavour to it, desperately wanting us to side with the teens and their desire to make a better life for themselves away from the corrupting influence of abusive adults. This is why you spend the first act paying lip service to their struggles (well at least the girl’s struggles). It’s pulls out all the stops to this end almost to the point of self sabotage. After its first act, it plays like a straight home invasion horror/thriller, sensational in its staging, but not crass in its content…
Until the third act. Until it flies off the rails into exploitation in a twist tailor made to make us sympathise harder than ever before with the teens. There are hints at it earlier on in the film, but the actual depths of crassness the full reveal sinks to is a bit too little too late for the rather slick, relatively non-grubby genre flick that came before. It does add a wrinkle of bittersweetness to the end, but it is something the movie could have done without.
And in all seriousness, it is something that could very well be triggering to survivors of sexual assault.
You have been warned.
But boy, from a technical perspective, it cements Fede Alvarez as a young genre director to look out for. Don’t Breathe is an exceptional aesthetic object in a time when such things are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream horror. Worth considering a watch on that level alone.

WB Just Fragged Itself

No. Not worth the frustration at a missed opportunity 

What have I got myself into? It’s 6 o’clock and I’m on my way to watch Suicide Squad, a movie that by all accounts has been mangled by extensive reshoots and a superfluous licenced soundtrack. I’m on a train and the guy in front of me keeps turning to his friends across the isle, saying “hello” and thumping his seat so loud it is drowning the music I am listening to. It’s important to note that he was originally sitting with them before moving to a smaller seat that could not accommodate all of them and then feeling insulted that no one followed. He throws an open and full bottle of water at them in indignation, drenching my legs in the process. He seems pleased with himself.

I shouldn’t let this and a number of other insignificant (though still salient) inconveniences stand in the way of me engaging with Suicide Squad on its own terms (whatever “its own terms” could mean for a movie that is part of a hurriedly conceived shared universe counter to a rival studio’s ambitious experiment). I am just trying to keep accountable to myself to try and look past anything that could colour my perception of the film. That thought is derailed as I catch a glimps of self-satisfied train guy, now reunited with his friends, reaching over and tweaking an unfortunate’s nipples and stroking their chest. At least he is having a good time.

I’ll also admit that I am not so fervently lost in the supposed majesty of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) that I preoccupy myself with conspiracy theories, following the money back to Disney rather than acknowledging the considerable flaws of the DCEU’s offerings thus far. I am, also not too proud to admit that there were things about Man of Steel and Batman v Superman that I did like despite not liking them as a whole.

So, with that in mind, let me be upfront, lay my cards on the table. Here’s where I stand going in:

  • I like Amanda Waller
  • I like Harley Quinn
  • I hope Killer Croc is as scary as he was in the opening to Arkham Asylum
  • David Ayer’s movies to date have been about violent, hyper-macho men’s relationships to each other as they do violent, hyper-macho things
  • WB has no idea what it is doing
  • Live action DC movies deserve better stewards
  • I am willing to bet Assault on Arkham is the better Suicide Squad movie
  • I don’t want this to be as bad as the critical consensus suggests

After dinner and a coffee, my friends and I make our way to the theatre. It’s a tiny, foul smelling place. There are holes in my seat and not enough leg room to allow people to pass. Four or five people trip down the poorly maintained stairs on their way to their seats. It hasn’t been too long since release. This does not bode well for Suicide Squad’s takings. It is also a full house. This confuses me until I remember we’re not in VMAX so we don’t matter as much to the theatre chain.

And then it begins. A garish, neon lit, hyper stylised flurry of cuts scored to a simultaneously aggressively pandering and culturally irrelevant licenced soundtrack serves as an introduction to three of the film’s key players, one of its identities, and its primary flaw. The third character we are introduced to is Amanda Waller. Her introduction serves as a means of introducing us to the film’s key players. A second time in the case of Harley Quinn and Deadshot. After this sequence, we watch as the group is assembled, giving us a run down of their abilities in a more show don’t tell kind of way. And it’s this third introduction to the film’s characters that feels like the one David Ayer had the most hand in constructing. Things don’t look good. But the third set of introductions feel so natural and slide by so quickly that I start to get swept up in the “rhythm” of the film before I realise the first act ends without anything actually happening.

Nothing happens in the first 30 minutes of the film because the first 30 minutes of the film are three, stylistically different attempts to do the same thing.

I slump in my seat and groan. The only thing that establishes any sense of context for the film’s narrative is Amanda Waller mentioning that Superman is dead, placing the film some time after the end of Batman v Superman.

This doesn’t particularly inspire confidence, and also serves as an augur for upcoming frustrations. Some of them are due to the reshot material being haphazardly inserted into Ayer’s original cut, some of them are due to Ayer’s own quirks. But the thing that is most evident at the current moment is that Suicide Squad is a film that’s in two minds about what it should be. One is a quip heavy and flashy feature length trailer, the other a more menacingly toned and character focused actioner (the sort of thing that is David Ayer boilerplate).

And now here I am watching a film with three styles and three rhythms. It frustrates me that one of these styles feels so much stronger than the others. The darker material is more assured, better staged, and less contrived feeling. That’s not to say the hyper-stylised stuff is terrible. It’s not. It gives the film a kind of anarchic, barely holding together energy that also fits well with the theme of the movie. At times Suicide Squad feels more kinetic than Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, with its own set of visually dazzling sequences. It’s just that it’s not David Ayer’s cup of tea and you do begin to see the facade start to crack when he tries for dark laughs without the flashy editing of a trailer company to obfuscate things. When he tries to do funny all by himself, it feels forced and half baked. They’re attempts to lighten the mood and give the film an identity all its own without consideration to context or character. And given they take up space without expanding narrative or character all that much, they make the remainder of the film pull double time to flesh out the world and the cast.

 

It doesn’t work.

 

I think to myself “why, WB, why would you do this? Why would you allow David Ayer to create his workprint, get him to reshoot and create a more comic workprint, and then hire a trailer making company to cut the two different cuts together without consideration for narrative continuity or structure?”

They panicked, that’s why. It still doesn’t answer why they didn’t just release either David Ayer’s original version, or the funnier version instead of frankenstein’s monstering the two of them together.

Are they trying to aim for a Guardians of the Galaxy type hit? All the “quirky” humour and attempts at getting disparate, self-interested people to wax poetic about how they now feel like a family definitely hints at that. But here’s the thing. Guardians of the Galaxy cared about its characters. The jokes came from a place of truth about the characters. It was purpose built from the ground up to be what it was. Suicide Squad wasn’t. The audience laughs anyway.

With so much of the film taken up by dead weight, the bits that do work better aren’t as strong as they could have been. It does get better as it goes along, in that its more conventional, generic strengths are more evident. The characters start palying off each other more ogranically. The focus on getting a thing done and then going to do the thing keeps the narrative relatively simple. And as the film nears the final act, there are fewer and fewer moving parts to confuse things. Though there’s still a little something missing. That something is the characters.

With the exception of Harley Quinn, Deadshot and El Diablo, none of the characters are fleshed out beyond the broadest of stereotypes. Captain Boomerang’s defining traits are he’s a bloke. Just an Aussie bloke. With fancy boomerangs. He robs banks. Killer Croc isn’t scary or at all intimidating. He is reduced to a series of African American stereotypes. He dons a hoodie, replies monosylabically in ebonics, and when granted a request by Amanda Waller, he asks for a TV to watch hip hop music videos. Enchantres is the Oracle from 300, except at full speed. And Slipknot only exists to fulfill the one purpose he had in the comics… which I suppose it isn’t fair to ding the film for.

So when the film demands that you spend time with and root for all the characters, does ridiculous things like show them bonding in the 3rd act and expecting you to believe they’re a tight family unit now, and asks you to care when any of them die, it doesn’t work. Things either feel forced, or hokey and untintentionally comic.

Speaking of unintentionally comic, a consequence of the mashing together of the two cuts is that narrative beats now need to take place in exposition dumps. Some of them are so obviously expository that it honestly sounds like the characters have stepped out of the film and are reading a summary of the screenplay to the audience. They don’t laugh at this, though. They also don’t find it incongruous that a 6313 year old witch would unironically say “you don’t have the balls”.

I leave the theatre after the obligatory end credits stinger. It serves no purpose other than to show us once again how justice is dawning. Two of my friends didn’t care to wait, nor did the majority of the audience. I don’t know what this says about their patience by film’s end. It might just be the fact it’s not a Marvel branded film. I’m frustrated by the mess it ended up being. It’s not unwatchable, actually quite a bit easier to get through to the good parts than Batman v Superman. That doesn’t stop me from shuddering as I am reminded of the fact Rogue One has befallen a similar fate.

I also wonder what we can expect from modern tentpole cinema when everything is trying so much to grow a franchise that they spend valuable screentime sowing the seeds of future entries that they don’t bother focusing on making the current film a strong experience. I just want to go home, forget about comic books and shared cinematic universe movie projects and just go to sleep. Modern cinema doesn’t seem content to let me.

Batman v Superman

No, not worth it. Too long, not enough good.

Two for two misses in the “DCEU” thus far. Batman v Superman is not a good film. It is, however, an interesting one with something it is trying desperately to say. And it does so with pomp and circumstance. The score is grand and at times gothic. The shot compositions are gorgeous and often times evoke comic book panels, without the rampant use of speed ramping a la 300 and Watchmen. And it does actually try to address the massive collateral damage from the climax of Man of Steel. 

But Snyder’s ability to juggle all the competing plot lines and motivations leaves something to be desired. There is too much going on with too many holes and too little room to breathe, and this is not something necessary fixed with the extended cut. 

BvS raises and drops so many plot threads it could have comfortably been a three movie arc. Lois Lane feels more like a reporter this time around, but her role is still “thing what Superman wants to protect”. Wonder Woman exists in this movie because justice is dawning and we need to be made aware of this fact. There is a scene in which she watches what amounts to short adverts for the remaining justice league characters, with ready made logos, and it adds nothing to the plot. It could have easily been a stinger. And seriously, why would LexCorp design their super hero sigils for them? There is an entirely different movie’s climax stapled onto the end of the BvS arc involving a surprise Doomsday, who is sadly wasted in an attempt  to fit The Death of Superman onto The Dark Knight Returns.

Also Superman gets framed for murder and war mongering and Batman has been busy branding people who then get killed by their fellow inmates. And there are three dream sequences. Bruce Wayne has all of them. The most significant one serves as franchise building rather than a thing that drives the plot along. 

There is a lot going on and it doesn’t feel like a cohesive narrative. It is more like a series of vignettes, and some of these vignettes are quite effective at creating tone, addressing character, and showcasing performances. It is really in these moments when interesting things happen. 

It is where we learn Batman is a pathetic mess of a man driven by the death of Robin and repeated failures to improve the state of Gotham City. It’s where we learn that Bruce believes killing Superman may be the only significant thing he could potentially achieve. It’s where we begin to question whether Bruce is really in it to strike pre-emptively at an alien super being for the benefit of mankind, or if it is an ego thing. And it is where we see a world react in various ways to the actions of a seemingly omnipotent entity that acts across borders and is beholden to no state. 

Affleck does well as an exhausted an damaged Batman who has taken to lethal force after the death of his Robin. This is probably the most nuanced and emotionally truthful take on modern Frank Miller Batman we’re going to get. Take that as you will. 

Holly Hunter does all she can to breathe life into Senator Finch. She really does sell her character’s belief that Superman should be held to account for his stateless foreign intervention. It is almost as if BvS is a different film when she is on screen. 

Superman gets shafted by his own movie again. There are brief snippets of him saving more people this time around, but Cavil plays Superman as some bored and put upon saviour. It’s like he can’t stop looking irritated by humanity. This coupled with the messianic imagery and all the references to Superman as God and you could just as accurately refer to him as Cranky Space Jesus. 

Ultra Nihilist Billionaire v Cranky Space Jesus doesn’t quite have the same ring to it though. 

It really is fair to say that BvS is a structural mess. It was hacked down by 30 minutes to get it to a reasonable running time and a PG-13. But all that cutting left holes…

And this is where the Ultimate Edition comes in. Those 30 minutes are back, blood effects are added in, and it gets so unfathomably dark and mean spirited, you begin to wonder what anyone was thinking. It does plug the holes though.  So is it better?

Yes and no. 

BvS now makes narrative sense in that there is cause and effect, and that in itself goes a long way towards making it more than marketing, sound and fury. But curiously, it loses something in the process. Where the original film was about people’s reactions to a superhuman vigilante, and whether he should continue acting without governmental oversight, the added narrative clarity makes Ultimate Edition about Lex Luthor being omniscient and pulling all the strings. Africans being afraid of Superman’s actions in their countries? Luthor’s doing. Witnesses tearfully recounting the chaos that lay in Superman’s wake during hearings? Plants organised by Luthor. Prisoners killing prisoners branded by Batman? Luthor pays them to do it. And why? Just because. Of all the things the film clears up, it doesn’t flesh Luthor’s motivations out beyond his father used to hit him as a child and he now wants to kill a god. It is no longer asking questions about whether an alien of immense power can be trusted to uphold American values, about who is responsible if he acts in foreign countries, and if his mere presence poses a danger because other “meta humans” may come out of the woodwork.  It is now a movie about punching things in the face when you’re not busy pimping out your next few movies. 

It is also unjustifiably long. 

Here’s hoping Wonder Woman turns out good because that Justice League trailer did not inspire much confidence.