Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

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 – The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal

Yes (Cat lovers/owners be warned though)

Summary: A father and son team conduct an autopsy on an unidentifiable, naked woman found half buried at the site of a multiple murder. Things go wrong.

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens in a location it will never revisit. It is the site of a bizarre multiple murder that has the town’s Sheriff puzzled. He’s even more puzzled when his men find a half buried naked corpse in the basement, with seemingly no connection to the murders. One of his officers informs him with a mix of cheese and solemnity that there were no signs of a break in, in fact there were signs suggesting the murder victims were trying to break out!!!

The opening is ominous in a couple of ways, the most worrying of which are signs of a screenplay rich in cliche. It is just as well then that director André Øvredal has the good sense to focus on the more unique aspects of the premise, most obviously the whole autopsy thing. Speaking of, the film shifts to an underground location filled with aged rooms and tight corridors. This space is framed in a particularly claustrophobic way. While we’re being introduced to the setting of the remainder of the film, we are also being introduced to two of its three primary characters. It is reasonably standard stuff. The father is struggling to get over the death of his wife, the son wants to leave town and avoid following in his father’s footsteps, but the performances are strong enough to sell it. There is jokey verbal sparring and a sense of mentorship that underlies most interactions, making the relationship and by extension the characters feel lived in and authentic.

And then the third major character is rolled through the door. Yes, the Jane Doe corpse is a character in her own right. The way she is filmed, the way the editing gives her reaction shots to the bizarre goings on, make her feel aware and consciously manipulating her surroundings despite her entirely still and expressionless exterior.

But it’s her internals that drive the mystery of the film. The autopsy sequence fleshes out the father and son characters, while piling unlikely finding upon unnervingly unlikely finding. The autopsy is approached and filmed in such a clinical way that every new reveal stands in much stronger contrast to the natural order of things. They build upon each other and lead to a climactic finding that is deliciously creepy. And the excellent sound design, including a slowly growing storm and a malevolent and teasing radio slather the atmosphere on thick. It is almost Lovecraftian in its lack of cohesion with human rationality.

And then things hit the fan, and the film shifts tactics from building tension to delivering scares. Here’s where the problems start to raise their head. While the first half of the film was a slow burn relying on incongruence, the second half is a haunted house picture that’s a little too eager to go bump in the night. The longer the film goes on the more reliant it is on highly telegraphed jump scares. The screenplay justifies it as a malevolent force toying with its victims. It’s trying to rattle them and make them suffer rather than trying to kill them. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets dangerously close to becoming a one trick pony. An opening is created in a surface, a character looks through it, a few seconds of silence before BOO a face pops up into frame.

It takes a genuinely tense elevator sequence and a build up to a cliche ending that is viciously subverted for The Autopsy of Jane Doe to regain its footing. This is one of a few movies that attempts to explain what the malevolent force is without reducing its level of threat. And that’s because the characters still don’t know 1) if they can defeat what they are up against, 2) if they are even right about what it is. And it’s a fun way to end a reasonably smart single room supernatural thriller.

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.

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.

The end of the world all over again

No.

Independence Day: Resurgence is what is wrong with contemporary blockbuster cinema. At least western blockbuster cinema.
We pick up 20 years after the end of Independence Day. The aliens have been thwarted, earth has adapted their technology into ours, the world’s nations have come together in much the same way Ozymandias hoped the giant space alien squid would do at the end of Watchmen, with a combined world wide Earth-Space Defense Force. I suppose in that way the pandering to China feels more organic than in something like Transformers 4.
Jeff Goldblum is now an adviser to the earth-space defense force, one they don’t ever listen to, but I guess the title counts for something. There are human outposts throughout the solar system, and it’s at the lunar outpost that we blow a hole through a non-hostile alien ship and leave ourselves unprepared for the alien onslaught to come.
Independence Day: Resurgence has a wonderful cast: Jeff Goldblum, Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Fichtner. It then elects to do nothing with them. It has a breathtaking sequence that eclipses anything the original manages, then becomes much much smaller. It is goofy and amiable, not taking itself too seriously, then invests much energy in Poe faced mythology and franchise building. Independence Day: Resurgence is not so much the disaster film with sci-fi trappings of the original as is a cynical game of moving pieces into place for sequels to come.
Aside from that there are weird technical issues you would not expect in a tent pole feature. Some cuts result in poor communication of the flow of time, ending up temporally confused and confusing. Actors fail to meet eye lines. CG effects do not feel like they belong in the world, like they are weightless and without substance (a complaint that also applies to the transformers films).
But the biggest sin… Other than Jeff Goldblum, there is nothing that Independence Day: Resurgence does that other big CG laden movies cannot provide. What made Independence Day novel in its time was its sense of scale. It was more massive than its contemporaries. Now a days, a big, loud, flashy blockbuster is old hat. Anyone with the budget can and will do that. So what does Independence Day: Resurgence offer? Nostalgia? Perhaps. But then the movie looks and feels so much different due to the change in visual design. The incorporation of alien technology in our technology and building design makes it feel more like a generic futuristic film than a film that takes place in the same universe.
Independence Day: Resurgence may be less insufferable than a Transformers, but it is a beast with no identity of its own. It is content to do everything that other films are doing without offering anything unique. It is just another big, loud, waste of time that is too busy thinking of the future to focus on the present.
ID4 was a big film. ID: R is the shadow it cast.

End of Watch

Yes – with caveats 

End of Watch is a weird movie. It is weird in that it is a conventional genre film that is aesthetically experimental. It is weird in that it goes to really dark places, but has morally righteous main characters. It is weird in best parts are the parts that play least like a film from the genre it is part of. It is also one hell of an (intentionally?) ugly looking movie.

Let’s get this out of the way, if you are not one for found footage, especially if the film half heartedly attempts to justify the conceit, you will not enjoy End of Watch as much as it probably deserves. That’s right, End of Watch is a found footage buddy cop, hang out, police procedural. And if that jumble of aesthetics and genres doesn’t at least makes you curious, at least know that the film holds together better than it has any right to. 

It is aesthetically bold (let’s put it that way) in its approach to film making and delivering narrative. End of Watch operated part of the time as a found footage film being made by one of the two main cop characters for a film class, intercut with found footage shot by gang members and “traditional” third person coverage. The traditional coverage adopts as much of the aesthetic properties of the found footage as possible, with zooms, handheld camera works for what appears to be a deliberate attempt to imitate autofocus. This does increase the intimacy between audience and characters by reducing our distance from them, but it is kind of surreal and disorienting, not entirely being sure whether we are watching from a character’s perspective or not, except for noticing a bump in image detail from time to time. 

Coupled with the use of found footage is a breaking of rules and conventions you would expect from traditional coverage. Shots are framed at odd angles, the line is broken, and temporal continuity between cuts is played with, lending the film a jittery energy in high tension moments. It’s a kind of raw, punk feel that makes me feel it could have benefitted Suicide Squad. At least in part, not for a whole movie. A particular segment of note is a fire rescue that is dazzlingly disorienting, and rather tense as a result. Shot primarily from point of view miniaturised digital video cameras, frantically cutting between the two characters, low to the ground as they are crawling through a smoke filled house. It is immediate, nauseatingly so. So much so that when the characters exit the house, the relative stillness and space afforded by the exterior location is rendered just as surreal as the disjointed interior shots. 

And it is when things slow down and switch gears to hang out flick that things actually start going from interesting aesthetic experiment to good time at the movies. This film lives and dies on the performance of its two central characters, and their chemistry is so electric and genuine, it feels like you are on a ride along with people who have been friends for years. They bond through playful teasing, recounting stories from their youths, and talking about their better halves. There is a sense of warmth and humanity present here that speaks to a commitment to its characters first and foremost, only then building tension and adding wrinkles to the narrative after we have become invested. 

 There is a degree of character truth in this movie completely absent from a lot of other genre fair, and it really elevates Ayer’s macho-men doing macho things raison d’être. When the macho-men are these fun to hang with and have humanity threatening to burst out from under their braggadocio, it really makes you want the primary plot line that is running through the film (one you don’t particularly notice is there until the film nears its third act) to just drop away and leave us alone with these two. 

It is all the more impressive to note that a number of these scenes were shot within the confines of a squad car. Gyllenhaal and Peña are that engaging that looking at them dead on from what is effectively an inwards pointed dash cam is one of the highlights of the film. Likewise it is impressive that given a lot of the film is disconnected “day in the life” moments, that there is a rising tension and a narrative that develops in plain sight, but isn’t noticed until the climax.

It is a bit of a shame that the peripheral characters don’t feel as developed, nor are given much to do than to remind the viewer that there are other people in the lives of these two cops. In pareticular, their love interests are wasted. Moments with them are sweet and hint at even more humanity, but there isn’t enough of them to get much more of a sense of what they are like and what life with them is all about. For a movie about the life of an LAPD officer on and off the job, it spends too little time developing the off the job side of things.

All up though, End of Watch is an energetic, intimate movie that largely succeeds because of the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña. A genre experiment with real emotional heft, and one that promised good things to come from Ayer. These good things have yet to materialise, but the potential is there.

Something to dwell on:

As good as the film’s strengths are, its treatment of criminals leaves something to be desired in these #blacklivesmatter, “let’s build a wall” days. They are nothing but violent vessels for conflict. Not human being, just plot devices. Ayer himself makes note of this as a device to strengthen thenfilm’s narrative thrust and avoid confusing the audience’s sympathies. It is a film about good cops doing good things, after all, and having richly sketched gang bangers would get in the way of the film’s purity of intent. But Ayer has gone further to acknowledge that this is definitely not the case in real life, that he is sorry for selling them out and making them look like nothing more than evil violence machines. But 1) that was in a director’s commentary track, 2) cinema is a force for influencing and strengthening one’s beliefs, as much as it is about all the other things it achieves. You only need look at the Twitter response to Olympus has Fallen to see that racists having their racist views, not only unchallenged, but seemingly validated and legitimised by mainstream cinema is an honest, real world problem that we cannot ignore.

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.

Captain America: Civil War – Continuity Lockout

Yes (If you have an investment in the MCU and remember story elements from previous movies)

No otherwise

13 movies in and the MCU is only getting harder for those not invested, or in some way informed about, to care about and follow.

This is the new world we live in, where franchise film making is ever present to the point that Universal is giving their stable of movie monsters a shared universe reboot, and even James Bond movies are slave to carving continuity where there should be none.

Yet where Bond, Universal, and more recently, DC have failed, Marvel have (through tight control and strict formula, with its own problems) managed to create a juggernaut that, at the best of times feels like a lived in and fully realised world. They have done to the silver screen what continuity driven television, or for that matter, what Super Hero comics have been doing.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. By virtue of being big, expensive things that take time to make and come out between instalments, having such a heavy reliance on narrative beats from close to a decade worth of movies will necessarily make following the MCU a difficult and potentially onerous task for the casual film goer.

This is where Captain America: Civil War stands. Plot elements and character beats from previous movies all come together to drive a rich character story, that just so happens to be layered upon a middling narrative. It feels like the least casual watch friendly of the MCU movies, actively demanding a knowledge of the MCU as a whole to fully appreciate all that the film has to offer. While certain of the MCU movies (Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, for example) could rightfully be criticised for serving as glorified advertisements for future instalments, the majority, and in fact, the best of the MCU could stand alone as their own entertainment. Take a look at Guardians of the Galaxy, or even at Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

That said, while other MCU movies serve the dual purpose of serving to set the pieces for succeeding films, while also developing their own characters, the two Captain America sequels have been tasked with a triple purpose of setting the board, developing Cap, and remixing and recontextualising the events of the MCU to keep things fresh. Winter Soldier pulled the rug out from under us regarding the nature of SHIELD and past events of the MCU (think back to the scene in Iron Man 2 where the government attempted to gain control of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit technology and shudder at the realisation that it was Hydra pulling the strings there).

Herein lies the problem with Civil War. Having a larger number of pieces on the board to violently shake around, the majority of the film’s forward momentum is dedicated to reaching back into the past and messing with it. The film’s actual stand alone plot, while delivering a villain that is more complex and sympathetic than the majority of MCU villains, relies on screenwriting tricks and narrative contrivance that almost sinks whatever good will I had for Civil War as a stand alone piece of entertainment. Imagine if you will The Joker’s level of omnipotence, without the implicit and sometimes explicit understanding of The Joker more as a narrative device than as a character in his own right, and you are getting close to the problem with Civil War’s villain and narrative arc. That Civil War has in any way a compelling villain compared to the larger MCU says more to damn the quality of villains of this franchise than to praise Civil War’s.

So as a stand alone film it is the weakest of the Captain America movies, and among one of the weaker all around MCU entries. That’s not to say it is completely devoid of merit. The action scenes are more competently staged than those in The Winter Soldier, though they may come across as superfluous at times and are hampered by the ugliness of the digital format, and the third act actively narrows the conflict down to what works best and ends up as a vicious, personal climax rather than the exhausting and pointless escalations to 20 minutes of CGI Armageddon that was for so long the MCU house style. Still, without a baseline investment in the MCU and its goings on, Civil War comes dangerously close to being a tedious, nothing movie.

Civil War’s plot is kicked off by a mission to tie up some loose ends introduced at the end of Winter Soldier that goes horribly wrong, resulting in civilian casualties. This sets in motion one of the grimmest, most emotionally charged films in the MCU. The Avengers are faced with an ideological struggle, that creates fractures in their unity , and leads to the titular “civil war”. The “war” in question is much smaller in scope than what I have been lead to believe its comics namesake, with the battles being mostly those of words. Positions are set up and countered, there are appeals to emotion and authority, and it is ultimately bruised egos, psychological distress, and stubbornness that lead to the fists flying and men falling from the skies. There’s rich character interaction going on here, and the emotional and ideological wrestling is much more interesting than the film’s strides to be political. It doesn’t really have much to say about the validity and morality of extrajuduicial and extragovernmental foreign interventionism beyond what the characters themselves bring to the table. The third act jettisons all pretence of Civil War being a political thriller in the vein of Winter Soldier to focus solely on small scale emotional stakes.

Tony Stark is once again pro-registration and Steve Rogers is anti-registration. Stark’s stance is informed by the guilt and previously implied PTSD he suffered at the hands of his hubris and the harm and destruction it precipitated. It has cost him his relationship with Pepper Potts, has led to the events of all three Iron Man movies, and to the destruction and loss of life that Ultron caused. He cannot seem to keep himself in check, and believes UN oversight will be able to keep the collateral damage low.
Rogers, on the other hand, has witnessed first hand what unquestioned adherence to authority can result in. SHIELD was a front for Hydra, that almost led to their victory and millions and millions of deaths. The possibility of allowing Hydra or another such organisation prevent the Avengers from acting in the best interests of Earth is something he cannot abide. Thinking back even further to Captain America: The First Avenger, Rogers knows what it’s like to have an overwhelming desire to help and be unable to act due to the chain of command deciding they have a better, more politically friendly use for him.

Civil War in general is at its best when it is pairing up and squaring off its characters. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barns are effectively two of Captain America’s best friends, trying to see who is the secret actual best friend. Black Panther and the film’s villain are men driven by vengeance. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are two leaders on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The Vision and Scarlet Witch are two beings struggling to deal with a world that fears their awesome power and potential for destruction in different ways.

The film sings along without having to dedicate too much time to developing character or introducing their positions because the remainder of the MCU has done most of the heavy lifting for it. And this is the crux of the problem. Civil War is at its best when it is an experiment in franchise film making, allowing it to be a conversation as much with its audience as it is with its franchise history. But its reliance on its franchise history makes it one of the most alienating mainstream movies I have seen in recent history. These are not Easter eggs to be enjoyed by the franchise faithful, these are the basic building blocks of the film’s worth as a piece of entertainment.

And if you come into Civil War without the pre-requisite context? Why should you care about Tony Stark showing Steve Rogers his father’s antique fountain pens (aside from the fact fountain pens are amazing)? Would you even notice the dramatic reversal when it’s Steve who pulls an unconscious Bucky out of the water? Do you even know who General Ross is, and why he is particularly pleased to mention that the Avengers have no idea where Bruce Banner is? Why would Black Widow ask Clint if they are still friends?

And with a middling narrative holding together the remixing, referencing, recontextualising, and character moments, why would you want to sit through a film this long? It is a film of contradictions, trying to please too many masters. It attempts to be a political thriller when it is actually a character drama. It is a tense mystery film that pauses the mystery to deliver bombastic and mostly inconsequential set pieces. It is a film with a politically engaged message that doesn’t bother to think its politics through beyond what feels right to position its characters for a third act confrontation. It is a focused character study with an expanded cast of characters that mostly get overlooked.

Ultimately I enjoyed Civil War, but only because I took the effort to follow the MCU enough to understand its place in the modern cinematic landscape. Without my (admittedly flimsy) understanding of the MCU, I would have been entirely uninvolved, as my friend who saw it with me was. It is worth noting that he has seen almost every MCU film , and has enjoyed the majority of them. However, he engaged each one as a stand alone film.

The question then becomes, is it okay to critique a film for working within the conventions of contemporary mainstream franchise story telling, when it does so better than its competition? Is it okay to say that the 13th film in a long running franchise is not good as a stand alone product? What happens when keeping informed enough to enjoy the franchise becomes more of a chore, an obligation to a machine designed to synergise and push corporate product?

The aforementioned continuity driven television is becoming more and more a thing in this age of Netflix and DVR. Yet the way Netflix has changed the media landscape does not mean that all forms of media should follow this route. The reason Netflix works is because it facilitates binge watching. The medium facilitates the form. Netflix shows have their seasons produced to completion before being made available to the binge watching audience. There is no down time between episodes, only between seasons. A film franchise cannot indulge in this luxury.

But the fact it took 13 movies to get to this stage when the DCEU took 2…

Is it fair to blame Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Young Adult movie adaptations and the MCU for this trend?