Movie Review ~ The Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquín Cosío, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Steve Agee, Flula Borg

Director: James Gunn

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Oh, sweet swampland did I hate 2016’s Suicide Squad.  A real trash heap of a film from a talented director with a stellar line-up of A+ leads, a B+ supporting cast, and a B- set of comic-book characters to work with.  No, the Suicide Squad wasn’t an area of DC Comics that I was familiar with before I saw the film, but you can see the attraction fans had for these oddballs – it’s the same reason why the similarly jokey (but far better) Deadpool went over so well with audiences.  People like to root for the underdog, even if, and maybe even sometimes especially if, they are the villain. 

While that PG-13 rated film failed to capitalize on the red-carpet Wonder Woman had rolled out just months earlier, Warner Brothers wasn’t quite ready to throw the towel in and they made a bold move by following-up the first film with a sequel that also serves as a semi-reboot in the process.  Nabbing director James Gunn after he was briefly axed by Disney from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the studio gained a legion of fans from the Marvel franchise who rejoiced that someone had plucked one of their favorite directors up after he had been (apparently) done wrong.

The resulting effort is The Suicide Squad and after five years it looks like Warner Brothers and DC Comics are nearly back in business, but not quite yet.  With the success of an R-rated cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the studio is more comfortable letting their films carry that restricted rating because it has proven to be what fans want.  (It also doesn’t deter children from seeing the film.  At my press screening, I can’t tell you how “overjoyed” I was to see so many parents bring their little children to this hard-R film.  Congrats, all!)  With an abundance of grisly gore and language that would make the Squad from sanitized feeling 2016 blush, this crew is way more amped up and ready to play than the previous iteration and that admittedly makes for a more entertaining ride. 

Audiences are in for a surprise at the beginning of the film because nothing is quite what it seems…or how the movie has been marketed up until now.  I’ll leave it at that, and you can read between the lines in my review if you want to know more about what that means in terms of who is in the film and for how long.  Returning from the original film is Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), leading a group of skilled supervillains including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) to an island nation on the orders of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).  The leader of the country with friendly relations to the United States has been murdered, along with his family and now a top-secret weapon is at risk of falling into the hands of revolutionaries who don’t know what kind of power they could wield.

New to the team are Peacemaker (John Cena, in his second franchise film of the summer after F9: The Fast Saga) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba, Concrete Cowboy), two alpha males forced to work together who each try to outdo one another when it comes to killing the most bad guys.  Add in King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Creed), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and your rag-tag team of the strange and unusual but highly deadly is mostly complete.  They’ll find they need to rely on each other and their individual strengths (some they were born with, some thrust upon them) when faced with an enemy that’s truly out of this world. 

It’s easy to draw a line from the misfit crew in Guardians of the Galaxy all the way over to the denizens of the maximum-security prisons where The Suicide Squad does its recruiting, so Gunn makes a natural fit for these proceedings.  What doesn’t quite work all the time is the film’s overcompensation for having an elevated rating this time around.  Brandishing it’s more adult rating instead of doling it out with some style, it’s often sloppy and slappy instead of sharp like it should be.  The first fifteen minutes of the movie are legitimately terrible, and I was honestly dreading what was to come next, but then Gunn makes a move I didn’t see coming and suddenly I was interested again.  From that point on I felt like more engaging characters were brought in with increasingly raised stakes. 

By now, it’s official that Elba is a bona-fide star and this only hammers that point home.  How they missed the window of opportunity to have him take over as James Bond is simply beyond me (or is it not too late?).  He can do action, drama, comedy, you name it and he gets the chance to flex all those muscles here and then some.  In her third outing as the demented former flame of the Joker, Robbie continues to fine tune the role and even if 2020’s Birds of Prey was a better showcase, she’s no second banana here either.  I was left a little cold by Cena earlier this summer in F9: The Fast Saga but he’s a lot of fun here as an all-business killer for hire that does it all in the name of peace.  Gunn’s casting of Stallone as the Great White Shark looking for “num-num” is inspired and he easily steals the show with the least number of (full and coherent) sentences spoken out of anyone.  Kudos also to Davis for truly going for it this time out.  Davis rarely gets the chance to play these kinds of women and as morally challenged as Amanda Waller was in the 2016 film, she’s far more in the muck of it all in this one.

I guess my biggest stumbling block with both this film and its predecessor is that I just haven’t yet warmed to this branch of the DC Universe.  While I found this team to be much easier to get along with than the last one, I still don’t like the vibe that has permeated both movies.  A little of that same vibe was even present in the Guardians films so maybe it’s just a case of preferring my superheroes/villains more on the traditional side of things and less on the outskirts of society.  The Suicide Squad can hold its head high because it rights many of the wrongs that were done back in 2016, but it also needs to reconcile the fact that this team can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Batman and Superman in my book.

Movie Review ~ The Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.

Movie Review ~ Christopher Robin


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Chris O’Dowd, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: A year ago, this Winnie-the-Pooh fan was excited to learn of two upcoming projects. One promised to go deeper into the life of the author A.A. Milne and the other from Walt Disney Studios would bring the famous bear and his friends to life in a live-action/CGI hybrid. Both films had serious potential considering the beloved material and high nostalgia factor. Well…fool me once (Goodbye Christopher Robin), shame on you. Fool me twice (Christopher Robin), shame on me.

Whereas 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was a manipulative mess of a biography, Christopher Robin is a dreary miss that clings too tightly to its wistful moments. The movie is constructed to have you biting your lip and furtively wiping away tears at very specific points but it tries too hard to get you to go that sad place. Maybe I’ve turned into a monster in my old age but I resisted and outright resented the way the film went about its business.

Opening with young Christopher Robin attending a going-away party in the Hundred Acre Wood thrown by his animal friends, we learn he’s off to boarding school and will be leaving his friends far behind. Thus begins a rather long prologue where the lad becomes a man (Ewan McGregor, Beauty and the Beast) and eventually a war veteran. He’s now working for a luggage manufacturer with a wife (Hayley Atwell, Cinderella) and young daughter (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) he rarely spends time with. It’s a familiar sketch of a child that grows up and forgets what it’s like to conjure the kind of make believe fun that fueled a rich imagination. I mean, we all saw Hook, right?

With his family away for a weekend, Christopher is supposed to be working through the logistics of making cost-saving budget cuts at his job when he meets up with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh can’t find his friends but found his way through a magic door that connects the Hundred Acre Wood to the outside world. Christopher follows Pooh back through the door and begins a sentimental journey through his past that connects him back to the likes of Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore.

Director Marc Forster has been hit or miss in my book for a while. I enjoyed World War Z, am slowly coming around to his James Bond entry Quantum of Solace, and last year’s All I See Is You was pretty underrated in my book. He’s had a diverse range of tones/genres which I respect but there’s this curious heaviness he adds to Christopher Robin that feels wrong. Even though it makes a last ditch effort to zing up the action in the last 20 minutes, the majority of the movie is too somber for young children and far too slow for older kids. Adults are advised to bring a pillow.

The marginal good news is the period film looks amazing and the characters (much closer in design to Milne’s vision) are brought to impressive life through CGI. Whatever crazy subliminal product messages Disney put in the film worked because I left wanting to get a set of the updated Pooh and co. for my very own. The action blends seamlessly with the live actors and McGregor gets a gold star for making me believe he’s interacting with a stuffed bear. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact these animals can talk, nicely avoiding at least one tired plot device hurdle of stories such as this.

With bits and pieces culled from better movies about growing up too soon (add Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to the list while you’re at it), Christopher Robin is a disappointing entry in Disney’s attempt at giving its characters a live-action treatment. The film scores high in production value and is often saved by its CGI creations but it’s too tangled in its gloomy plot and obvious attempts at wringing tears out of you to be more than a summer bummer misfire.

Movie Review ~ Paddington 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Paddington, now happily settled with the Brown family and a popular member of the local community, picks up a series of odd jobs to buy the perfect present for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, only for the gift to be stolen.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Two short years ago Paddington, Michael Bond’s famous bear in the blue coat and red hat, finally got his first big screen adventure and it was a lovely bit of whimsy that snuck up on me in the best way possible. With its message of kindness filtered through quirky characters and a colorful kaleidoscope of production design, Paddington strangely wasn’t the huge sleeper hit in the US it should have been. Still, enough critics took note of its quality, coupling that with its snazzy UK box office a sequel was greenlit, and boy, are we lucky to have another one of these charming films!

The lovable bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) has settled into life with the Brown family at their comfortable home in London. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Breathe) is going through a mid-life crisis, dying his hair and exploring new yoga poses while Mrs. Brown’s (Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water) attention is focused on swimming to France. Their children, Judy and Jonathan, are both preoccupied with their own teenage interests while their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters, Brave) keeps the house running and everyone fed.

A popular fixture on their winding street that has a way of bringing sunshine to all he encounters (save for stodgy Mr. Curry of the neighborhood patrol), Paddington is living his best life, even if he occasionally gets into a spot of trouble.  In this outing, Paddington’s Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton, Maleficent) is still back in darkest Peru and he wants to get something special for her in celebration of her 100th birthday. Though at one time she planned to visit London with her late husband, they never made the trip but her adopted nephew finds the perfect gift in an expensive hand-made pop-up book of the sights of city in the curiosity shop owned by Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent, The Legend of Tarzan).

While visiting the opening night of a dazzling ‘steam circus’ with the Browns, Paddington mentions the book to Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas), a washed up actor that happens to be the descendant of a magician who was desperate to acquire the same pop-up tome. Evidently, contained on its pages are clues to finding a wealth of jewels hidden away by the proprietor of the circus. When the book is stolen and Paddington is jailed for the crime, he has to find a way to clear his name before Phoenix can acquire the bounty.

Returning director Paul King doesn’t yield to the episodic nature of Bond’s original creations.  This is a bear and family that have adventures and Paddington 2 hits the ground running, barely leaving any time to catch your breath.  Bounding joyously through scenes that find Paddington bungling a job at a barber shop to his revolutionizing the lives of his fellow inmates by educating the gruff cook (Brendan Gleeson, In the Heart of the Sea) on the tastiness of orange marmalade, the movie will leave you smiling.  It’s so focused on celebrating the innate goodness in people and kindly revealing how unfortunate it is to be someone who can’t find the fun in life, I can’t pick out anything that felt like a misstep.  It’s also a legitimately funny and ultimately moving (bring a tissue or two) bit of family entertainment, something of a rarity these days.

While both films earn a strong recommendation, I’d give the edge to this sequel, if only for the fact that the first one dealt with a bit more intense villain (Nicole Kidman’s sinewy meanie wanted to stuff Paddington!) and Grant’s character is just a sad song and dance man that wants money to finance a West End revue.  On that note, make sure to stay through the credits for an incredibly pleasing musical production number featuring Grant tap-dancing to Stephen Sondheim.  Nominated for three BAFTA awards (take that, The Post!) the good news is that there’s already a Paddington 3 in the works, let’s hope nothing gets in the way of its release within the next two years.  While we’re at it, this would make a great series for Netflix…just a thought.

Movie Review ~ Paddington (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t hold it against you if you took one look at the above poster for Paddington and wanted to run for the exit – with it’s on the nose tagline and been-there-seen-that antics you may write off this big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear as a kids-only affair.  That would be a mistake.

My history with Paddington goes way back to a local theater company in Minnesota.  My first theatrical experience was seeing a stage production of Paddington at the Children’s Theater Company and ever since then I’ve had an overwhelming fondness for the bear from darkest Peru that arrives in London looking for a family that will take him in.  As lovable as that other popular children’s bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, but faced with bigger city adventures, Paddington was a true bear of the world.

As this is (surprisingly) Paddington’s big-screen debut, we’re treated to a streamlined origin story that shows how our hero moves from living the wilds of Peru with his aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton, Maleficent, and Michael Gambon) to modern day London where he’s taken in by the Brown family.  When his arrival catches the eye of a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to outwit her and avoid getting stuffed.

Had Paddington been an American production, this whole set-up might have played like the also-ran story it is.  Under the helm of a British team, however, the movie is positively charming from its spirited performances to a colorfully gorgeous (not gaudy) production design.  Populated with richly strong primary colors that ground the movie in a kind of whimsical reality instead of the pure fantasy it actually is, there’s interesting detail around every corner.

Director Peter King keeps things moving at a brisk pace, never letting the 94 minutes feel slack.  True, that does mean some slight overuse of slapstick humor but it’s a good natured fun that’s well-mannered and veddy veddy British.

Though originally voiced by Colin Firth, the voice of Paddington comes courtesy of Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and it’s easy to see why Firth and the filmmakers parted ways.  Firth’s voice was perhaps too mature for the impish bear and Whishaw gives him a youth that rings true.  Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are nicely paired as the head of the Brown family.  She’s a free spirit and he’s a button-ed down businessman overly protective of their two children which leads to a nice subplot about the Browns that blends nicely with Paddington’s tale.

Even saddled with a platinum bob that appears to have gone through several iterations during filmmaking, Kidman is razor sharp as the villainess of the picture.  Even when she’s popping up in slight films, Kidman keeps things interesting so while her role may veer to the “too scary for young kids” side (you decide if you want to explain taxidermy to your youngins) she’s a statuesque ice queen that’s nicely menacing.

A true unexpected delight, it’s a shame the film wasn’t released in its original Christmas slot to attract the kind of family crowds it deserves but it was quite a busy time for holiday releases.  The humor may not be crass enough to keep U.S. audiences used to fart jokes appeased but I was downright charmed by the movie.  It’s sweet, quite funny, and exceedingly well made…did I mention the visual effects deserve a round of applause?  Paddington has taken a long time to get from Peru to movie screens…and the journey was worth the wait.