Movie Review ~ Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara

Director: David Ayer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: About halfway through Suicide Squad, a dejected looking Deadshot (Will Smith) remarks “For a few seconds there, I had hope”…and he’s on to something. The pre-credit studio/production company logos have a dirty neon sheen to them and I felt the briefest tingle of excitement, some eager optimism that the last big film of the summer would be swooping in to save an otherwise lackluster season of good but not great entertainment. Instead of saving the day this stinker of a superhero film winds up burning down the house in a most spectacular fashion.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics continue to have a major identity problem, which is causing a sizable rift in their plans to build up a superhero universe franchise to rival Marvel Studios. Though they possess the most recognizable caped characters of them all (Batman and Superman) they haven’t yet been able to deliver a fully satisfying entry, or at least one that pleases both the critics and the audiences. Man of Steel was too dark, unwisely going the route of The Dark Knight’s gloom and doom and while I wasn’t as out for blood as the majority of critics were, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had such significant structure problems that it wound up collapsing under its own turgid weight.

It’s easy to imagine that with BvS underperforming all eyes turned to Suicide Squad to right a listing ship and it’s not hard to see that this film has been heavily fussed with…to the point where it’s plot is almost completely incomprehensible. I’ve no doubt that writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) had a plan going into production but wound up bowing down to the studio heads and compromising his vision for the sake of the franchise, not to mention watering down the violence/language to fit into an ill-advised PG-13 rating.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and the movie is a herky jerky stumble through of brief origin stories, none of which feel long enough or inspire any sort of investment of interest for the next two hours. Deadshot (Smith, Winter’s Tale) is shown as both a family man and top-priced assassin, captured by a cameo-ing crusader in front of his young daughter. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) turns to the dark side after playing head games with her former patient, The Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) while inner-city gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms) spews flames whenever his temper gets the better of him. Rounding out the group is Boomerang (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Trumbo), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns). The lone squad member given zero introduction is Slipknot (Adam Beach) in appearance so brief I’m shocked he wasn’t edited out completely.

All of these rogues were rounded up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Prisoners) a morally stunted government agent that sees using bad guys to do good as a way to get in front of the new meta-human uprising. It’s never clear why Waller is as hard-nosed as she is, Ayer gives her no backstory or even a kernel of a hint as to her motivation and Davis plays her with uncharacteristic vacancy. Assisting Waller in keeping the rag tag team in line is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), Lt. Edwards (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) and the ghost-blade wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Bringing the team together occupies the first hour while the second is filled with their first mission when they learn to stop thinking about escaping and start working together. When the Enchantress goes all magically evil, Waller sends the Suicide Squad in to stop her, leading to low stake fights on dark soundstages with poor CGI creations and terrible dialogue of quippy one-liners that fall flat. Throwing in some twists that lazily wriggle more than they interestingly tangle, the picture sputters through its overblown finale before giving up the ghost and paving the way to Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017.

Smith and Robbie are interesting enough in their roles, though to call Robbie a breakout star based on her performance here is not that accurate. Sure, she’s probably the flashiest thing about the film but when it’s based purely on sexuality instead of characterization you have to wonder who the role is ultimately in service to. Much has been made of Leto’s wild methods in his creation of a new Joker but he’s in so little of the film that whatever impression he was supposed to make is likely on the cutting room floor…which is fine because when he does show up he’s so terrible that the less you see him the better. It’s fitting that Delevingne and Kinnaman’s characters are linked by love because they’re both dreadful, with Delevingne working her eyebrows and lisp into a frenzy whenever she’s threatened. Courtney and Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely register while Hernandez is the only vaguely root-able character in the whole bunch.

Now that Suicide Squad is open and will likely make a killing at the box office this weekend, on Monday morning I’d expect some heads to roll over at Warner Brothers as a way to exorcise the demons that the studio simply can’t shake. There needs to be a bit of cleaning the slate if there is any hope of saving future installments in this DC Universe. Hopes are high that Wonder Woman can give critics and audiences what they want, a decently composed intelligent adventure that’s not so damn dark.

Movie Review ~ Trumbo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suicide Squad

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Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Thoughts: One thing that’s always bothered me about the slate of Marvel movies released over the past several years is that they’ve all been so damn sunny. Sure, they’re fighting some pretty bad baddies and lives are certainly lost…but there’s a particular lack of edge that can sometimes result in the stakes being a little lowered. I’ve always leaned toward the darkness of the DC Comics world through outings with Batman and Superman…but next summer DC takes it a step further with Suicide Squad.

Our first look at the highly anticipated flick may clock in over three minutes but it seems to only skim the surface at director David Ayer’s vision of the bad side of justice. Ayer has delivered the goods in films like End of Watch and Fury so I’m especially excited to see him put those talents to work on this franchise starter. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) is getting the major press for his nightmare inducing take on The Joker but don’t forget that the film also stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Will Smith (Winter’s Tale), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and a few other not-so-surprise cameos that live within this universe.

 

Movie Review ~ Annie (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in.

Stars:  Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale,Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think it’s part of the job of a movie critic to do their best to remove any personal bias before entering into any film, trying to take what they are seeing for face value and reporting back how that experience felt to them.  I have to admit that going into this re-imagined take on the Broadway musical Annie I carried with me some baggage I’ve been dragging around since the project was first announced several years ago.

So OK, perhaps the 1982 film version wasn’t the box office success studios had hoped.  At the time, it was critically drubbed, mostly due to the ghastly amount of money spent on it which, to be fair, helped give the film an old-school big Big BIG feel with more orphans than you could shake a shtick at, huge city scapes that brought audiences convincingly back to the Great Depression, and a massive mansion with a singing and dancing staff ready to step-ball-change with every downbeat.

Full disclosure, Annie was the first film I ever saw in the theater and even as a two year old I cast a critical side eye at the musical tale of a scrappy orphan that evades crooks, rescues a dog, and wins the heart of the richest man in America in 127 minutes.  I actually didn’t make it through the whole film, opting to high-tail it out when my movie treats had disappeared.  Subsequent viewings over the years has endeared the film to me, particularly with Carol Burnett’s dynamite turn as the boozy Miss Hannigan and Ann Reinking as the leggy secretary to Albert Finney’s Oliver Warbucks.

An early preview of the film made the reboot (produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) look positively frightful and subsequent clips gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I waited with a mixture of glee and dread for the screening to arrive and was prepared to revel in my disdain for what modern spins were put on Annie and trounce those involved for their association with it all.

Consider it a minor Christmas miracle that I left the screening with very little venom for the retooling and a sizable lump in my throat.  Though it’s far from perfect and misses the mark more often than it should, this 2014 Annie is neither the embarrassment I had feared nor the train wreck I had secretly hoped for.

Let’s start with the bad and that would be Cameron Diaz.  Though Sandra Bullock was the first choice for Miss Hannigan (now fashioned as a foster mom…the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are tantamount to four letter expletives here) when she declined Diaz (Sex Tape, The Other Woman) signed on and the results are less than successful.  Admittedly, I got a nice chuckle out of this Hannigan being a faded star former member of C+C Music Factory but would have loved to see the part cast with someone that can sing without the extensive use of auto-tune.

Speaking of auto-tune, I’m shocked that the vocal sweetening tool wasn’t given its own production credit because it comes to the aid of everyone that sings a note here.  Some need it more than others (Diaz and Rose Byrne) but its use is so extensive it sounds like your iPhone’s Siri is singing one of the tunes from composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  Some Strouse/Charnin songs remain intact but most have been modernized to varying degrees of success.  Three new tunes are all over the map, with only one solo for Annie having a modicum of overall value.

The film is so heavy on modern technology and product placement that it will be dated two hours after it’s released in much the same way we look back at early 90s films sporting technology that looks like it was created in the Dark Ages.  While the 1982 film was a period piece and could get away with having a timeless feel, this new millennium Annie will be out of date the moment the next Apple product is released.

On the good side, we have Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her breathtaking turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild) as our spunky heroine.  In recent appearances, Wallis has been low energy and in an Adderall daze for her lyp-synched performances but it’s nice to report that in the actual film her spirit is infectious and her singing more than admirable.  The aforementioned new song written for her is a delight, performed with sweet honesty.  Her chemistry with businessman turned mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) is a chief saving grace of the film and the reason why you may find yourself wishing you’d brought a tissue with you by the time the finale rolls around.  Wallis actually makes Foxx tolerable, no small feat for an actor that never met a role he couldn’t preen and preside over.  Though saddled with a loser of a song and a lame humble beginnings history, Foxx looks like he’s having fun here.

Even if Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) receives some help in the singing department, she’s a nicely modern Grace…although I did miss the flair Reinking brought to the role in the 1982 version.  Special mention must also be made to Stephanie Kurtzuba (The Wolf of Wall Street) who steals scenes (and then promptly disappears) as a rough around the edges pencil pusher more excited than Annie is when both tour the awesome penthouse belonging to Stacks.  Too bad the role couldn’t have been packaged with Miss Hannigan and given over to Kurtzuba…I’ve a feeling it could have been a true star-making turn.

Director Will Gluck comes dangerously close to making a Stomp! film that happens to feature Annie tunes thanks to an opening sequence heavy on percussive elements found in the city leading into two songs featuring lots of clapping, foot stomping, and bucket pounding.  Eventually Gluck calms down and lets the actors and the script from Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo) do most of the work.

At the end of the day, did we need yet another version of Annie?  Probably not.  Even so, the masses of children at the screening I attended didn’t seem to mind any technical shortcomings or vocally assisted performances because they understood the message of a can-do attitude and family at the heart of the story.  Turns out maybe I was the one that needed to get that message more than anyone.

Movie Review ~ Pompeii

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A slave-turned-gladiator finds himself in a race against time to save his true love, who has been betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator. As Mount Vesuvius erupts, he must fight to save his beloved as Pompeii crumbles around him.

Stars: Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I remember reading reviews of Titanic back in 1997 when it was first released and thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, but what about when the boat sinks?’  James Cameron’s Oscar winning film benefited from the introduction of characters, plot, effects, and ideas that culminated in the famous sinking of the titular ocean liner which made it more than just a soggy retread of the popular disaster pictures of the 70’s.  As a high school student still finding my critical legs, all I cared about was how the boat looked when it was sinking.

I mention Titanic because the makers of Pompeii clearly hatched their notion to retell the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius during a screening of Titanic when it was re-released in 3D a few years back.  So instead of this being an all out disaster epic, it’s less about the lava and more about the love…and more’s the pity because even a trio of screenwriters can’t muster up a decent bit of dialogue that would help the audience pick someone, anyone, to root for.  Yeah, you say, but what about the volcano?

I’ll get to it…trust me.

Opening with a factual quote from Pliny the Younger who had a firsthand account of the volcanic event, it’s pretty much fiction for the remainder of the film.  A young boy is orphaned at the hand of a cruel Roman soldier (Kiefer Sutherland, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Flatliners) and raised in slavery, becoming a gladiator along the way.  So good at his craft that he’s brought to Pompeii to fight top gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Thor: The Dark World) he has the misfortune to arrive not only at the very moment Vesuvius cracks open but also to fall in love with a member of Pompeii’s upper crust (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch).  Ok, you say, good to know…but what about that volcano?

Getting there…

For the next hour there’s a lot of speechifying by braggadocios, both political and civilian, none of which has the least to do with the fate that awaits nearly everyone within Pompeii’s walls and harbor villages.  The love story is paper thin and too much time is spent introducing secondary characters that are merely there to push our leads out of the way of falling rocks before meeting their ends shortly thereafter.  Ah, you say, I understand…but what about the acting?

Wait, what?  The acting?  Well…I was just getting to that…

Browning comes off the best of the bunch…though here is another movie set in an Italian speaking country where everyone has (or attempts to have) a British accent.  Harington impresses solely on his first entrance, exiting the shadows and preceded by his eight pack abs which is probably why the film is being released in 3D.  Jared Harris (Lincoln) and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) are wet noodles as Browning’s parents and poor Jessica Lucas (That Awkward Moment, Evil Dead) is barely an afterthought.  Sutherland makes zero effort to do anything special here…which is too bad because he’s a more than capable of playing a nasty bad guy.  Between his non period Jack Bauer haircut and UK accent by way of Billings, Montana (when he bothers to use one at all), he’s incredibly miscast here.

So the volcano…

It erupts pretty spectacularly and provides several opportunities for actors to outrun fireballs, tidal waves, and clouds of ash…but not the inevitable.   The volcano blowing its top is kinda worth the wait and kinda not because so much filler has weighed the film down before its arrival.  It’s the best visual effect in the film, with other moments coming off with badly rendered CGI.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson has four Resident Evil films under his belt as well as a host of other bombastic films with a sci-fi slant (Event Horizon is a guilty pleasure of mine) so he’d seem a natural choice to helm a disaster epic…but he merely moves the pieces around without ever bringing them together in a memorable way.  Pompeii isn’t a total wash of a film but, like the city of its title, it’s gone in an instant.

Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.