Suicide Squad

In the 90’s, emboldened by the critical and popular acclaim of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the prior decade, DC set out to make itself the producer of mature, grown-up comic books graphic novels that could sit proudly on any bookshelf next to Cormac McCarthy. Instead what we got was a plethora of ultraviolent, terribly written, astoundingly immature books that missed the mark so hard they landed next to Alpha Centauri.

Suicide Squad completes the 90’sification of DC movies that began with Man of Steel and continued with Batman v Superman, a dark, gritty, remarkably violent and creepy movie with the racial and sexual politics of a Transformers movie. The premise is that Amanda Waller, an evil government agent with far more menace than sense, decides that in case someone like Superman decides to kill everyone the US government should assemble a team of blackmailed supervillains to do their bidding. This fucks up within twenty minutes as Enchantress, an ancient demon who resembles a decaying stripper, breaks free of her control and decides to end the world (as you do).

Enchantress then spends the rest of the movie wobbling in what I suspect was meant to be a sexy fashion around a giant pillar of light leading to a portal in the sky (very original), while Waller’s other Dirty Dozen shoot their way through her army of identical tar babies to stop her. They consist of Will Smith, an assassin with a young, precocious cliche daughter he loves, Killer Croc, a man covered in bad fake crocodile leather, Captain Boomerang, who has no reason to be in this movie, El  Diablo, a latino gangbanger who shoots fire from his hands, Slipknot, who dies almost immediately, Katana, a samurai-wannabe even more stereotypical than her name implies, and Harley Quinn.

This is the first time I’ve seen Harley in anything, and I can only assume she’s different elsewhere as this movie’s depiction of her can charitably be called creepy, and uncharitably called fucking creepy. An absurdly sexualised caricature of infantilised women, coupled with this really uncomfortable fetishisation of mental illness, which stands out as bad even by the standards of the Batman universe which is typically only half a step up from Victorian madhouses. Her past relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto in one of the worst performances I’ve seen in years) is clearly abusive but the director has no idea how to write this in an interesting or clever fashion, it’s halfway played as romantic.

The depiction of romantic relationships here is so bizarrely and proudly retrograde I’m surprised it exists in a modern day blockbuster. At one point a soldier with the team starts talking about his relationship woes, at which point Boomerang tells him he needs to ‘get a handle on her’ by slapping her arse and telling her what to do, and I’m not sure if it’s even meant as a joke. The jokes themselves typically land with a thud and the studio reshoots studio to make the film more like its first trailer are painfully obvious, as it cannot commit to a tone. Parts of it try to be dark and gritty but never allows itself the casual amorality it aims for, and despite being about villains the cast are never allowed to be particularly evil.

Filmmaking-wise this thing is an astounding mess, with characters introduced to the audience multiple times, awkward flashbacks, choppy editing and action that varies from bland to unintelligible. I don’t know if it’s quite as bad as Batman v Superman was, both are incompetent but SS was never boring and a half hour shorter, but if this is now the standard for the DC universe expect it to end very soon.

Finding Dory

Outside of Toy Story Pixar’s never had much luck with sequels. Cars 2 and Monsters University both lacked any real reason to exist, though they at least tried to branch out in new, if in Cars 2’s case stupid, directions. The same minor praise cannot be given to Finding Dory.

The plot this time is that Dory, living with Marlin and Nemo in the reef following the first film, suddenly remembers where her family are on the other side of the ocean and the three set off to find them in a public aquarium/fish hospital. After making the trip Dory gets captured and put on display, after which she must find her parents and escape with the help of an misanthropic, amputee octopus called Hank, a nearsighted whale shark called Destiny who she may have known as a child, and a beluga whale called Bailey who’s lost his ability to echolocate.

The main problem with this film is that it’s largely just a retread of Finding Nemo. Dory’s arc of getting over her short-term memory loss in that film is undone so we can have her go on the same journey this time, and while the depiction of her struggling with her condition feels like an attempt to retroactively change the first movie’s ‘you can get over disabilities by trying hard’ message, they do that exact same message with the beluga whale in this one. For a film about a group of disabled fish the tone is all over the place, never tragic enough to play Dory’s illness for drama nor right to play it for comedy. There are also a common loon and a sea lion whose stereotypes, and I would never use this to describe anyone, but the first word they brought to mind was ‘retarded’. The new characters also just aren’t that interesting. Hank is uninteresting, unlikable and has a face that looks distractingly like the underside of an erect penis. Destiny and Bailey are somewhat likeable but not notable enough to say much about.

The film also feels like it was made by people who last saw its predecessor a decade ago, since there are many things that movie made a point of that have been completely forgotten. Someone tapping on or shaking a tank or bag with a fish in it is now completely okay, as Hank shakes Dory’s environments constantly without anything bad happening. The filmmakers have also forgotten that Dory found it easier to memorise things earlier by repeating them over and over, but neither she nor Marlin think to do that this time, leading to me (in an empty cinema row, thank god) silently yelling “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney you fucks!” over and over.

This is not a terrible movie. The central drama still kind of works and there are some good jokes, but it lacks any reason to exist. It’s so slight in comparison to Pixar’s other, better works and if I remember what happened in it in a week I’ll be very surprised.

Jason Bourne

It’s been twelve years since Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy forever changed action filmmaking, ushering in a new age of fast-paced, shaky-cam cinema that seems to anger just as many as it entertains. But, nine years after saying they wouldn’t return to the franchise, Greengrass and Damon are back with a sequel so by-the-numbers they should have named it The Bourne Redundancy.

This time Bourne is called out of retirement (again) when his CIA friend Nicky tracks him down at his local fight club, having ditched the Agency to start leaking their secrets like Edward Snowden (namechecked, though no-one remembers Chelsea Manning for some reason), in the first of many attempts at relevancy despite already covering this ground in Damon’s last film, which beat Snowden and friends to the punch by six years. This earns her the ire of Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander, two CIA officers who make Gordon Freeman look like a towering force of personality, who send Vincent Cassel (even blander) to kill the two. While all this is happening the founder of a social media startup played by Riz Ahmed, who it’s always nice to see getting work, is planning to blow the whistle on the CIA’s involvement in his business.

The crippling flaw at the heart of this movie is that it’s incredibly difficult to care about anything that happens. The cast are without exception boring as tar, rendering the central conflict equally so. There’s a subplot about Bourne’s dad which flops the same way, as dad gets less than a minute of screentime and two lines while Bourne has all the personality of a piece of cardboard. It gets so bad that during the climactic car chase I repeatedly forgot who the bad guy was and why Bourne was chasing him. There’s also a major plot point stolen wholesale from an earlier entry in the series to the point of almost making me scream obscenities in the middle of a packed theatre.

The filmmakers also don’t seem to understand the internet they base much of the plot around. As well as the usual tedious scenes of characters staring intently at monitors while dramatic music plays, everything about Riz Ahmed’s character is astoundingly vague. His social media platform is never defined for the audience, he gives press conferences full of general statements about the internet and privacy without ever saying anything, and part of the film takes place at a nebulous ‘technology’ conference, the purpose of which is never stated (although the director of the CIA is giving a speech for some reason).

I’ve largely lost interest in Greengrass’ style of action filmmaking after twelve years of imitators, though my hearing loss during this period may partially account for my distaste for a very sound design-dependent style of fight scenes. This film’s action is technically very similar to prior entries, though Bourne has become seemingly indestructible in his absence. In one fight scene that happens for literally no reason he takes repeated blows to the head from a dumbbell and doesn’t even lose consciousness, and a bullet to the gut briefly phases him before he handily tosses a grown man eight feet twenty minutes later. Bourne’s gadgetry also seems to fall from the trees in this one. At one point he finds himself by a stall with a bowl of free tracking devices to take away, and another has concealable cameras for him to shoplift (all of which come fully charged).

This is a really quite bad movie, but (aside from one scene) just by lacking anything of interest rather than being actively offputting. I’d never recommend watching it (even on Netflix) but honestly if I even remember anything that happened a week from now I’d be surprised.

X-Men: Apocalypse

Bryan Singer’s X-Men series is the longest line of superhero films by a single director, and while they’ve been consistently popular over the years they’ve been frequently criticised for not keeping up with the times, stuck in an early 2000’s mindset of being ashamed of their comic book origins and refusing to embrace their source material’s often campy nature. But I can happily confirm that this era is finally over, as Singer has managed to make a film perfectly in tune with the age we now live in, with a dour, joyless, extremely violent superhero tale to fit in right alongside Batman v Superman and Civil War.

This time our heroes are confronted by an ancient Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac, looking uncannily like Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers, who is resurrected from the ruins of a destroyed pyramid and wants to take over and destroy the world because… I really don’t know, he’s just evil and rambles about false gods a lot like he was accidentally given Jessie Eisenberg’s script notes for BvS. After gathering a deeply silly looking group of followers, who join him in his genocidal quest for no discernible reason besides him being able to make them more powerful, he sets about razing the world’s cities to the ground to build a pyramid because… I have no fucking idea. He just does things because the script needs a villain.

Meanwhile Magneto watches his latest family being shot dead in front of him because he just can’t catch a break, and joins Oscar Isaac for the exact same reasons he was the villain in the last two films, while Mystique, played by an utterly not giving a shit Jennifer Lawrence, also has her character arc reset to the beginning of First Class because the writer can’t come up with a new plot for her besides ‘gets over not looking normal’. Meanwhile baby versions of the cast from the first three films get together at Xavier’s incredibly inconspicuous school for people with superpowers and go off on a quest to rescue him when he gets kidnapped by Apocalypse. Oh, and Wolverine’s in it for a minute, because of course he is.

To describe this movie as ‘going through the motions’ is extremely generous; it’s basically just a checklist of X-Men movie tropes: Magneto decides humans are worthless, Mystique gets over body image problems, vague allegories to real life persecution are made, Professor X gives humanist speeches, the cast is way too large for everyone to be developed properly etc. The whole affair is so mind-numbingly generic I found myself heavily referring to the Wikipedia plot summary to remind myself what happened the day after seeing it. It’s ostensibly set in the eighties, but it doesn’t matter and once Apocalypse starts getting demolishing cities like a bored Roland Emmerich you’ll have forgotten the few nods made to the period. I don’t know if Singer’s just given up trying, but his direction has regressed drastically since (the legitimately good) Days of Future Past. There are direct to video Seagal films with more compelling direction.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, this film is absurdly violent. People are crushed, impaled, decapitated, shot, stabbed, flayed in slow motion and in one case telekinetically folded up like human origami. None of it fits the film’s overall tone and it feels like the director just got bored and decided to see what he could get away with. All of it ends up building to a punishingly long and literally headache-inducing climax in which characters we don’t know very well hit other characters we don’t know very well repeatedly with dodgy CGI, and I found myself zoning out to the point where I can’t quite remember how it resolved.

This is quite possibly the worst X-Men film to date, even worse than the legendarily bad Origins: Wolverine. It’s an agonizing slog that only avoids being the worst superhero movie of the year because Batman v Superman exists, and I can only hope that another director is hastily brought in to right the series because otherwise it will soon go down in flames.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

“All of DC’s decisions are the result of fear,” Tim Burton once said in an interview about his pioneering comic book movies, and following the commercial underperformance of Man of Steel (making only 2/3 of the billion dollars they’d hoped for) their latest panicked flail is to throw Batman into the sequel in the hopes of riding the Dark Knight movies coattails to equal success. This has somehow lead us to Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, a bizarre mishmash of heroes and world-building for which I cannot discern the intended audience.

The basic plot of the film, which is remarkably difficult to follow due to the almost total lack of narrative connective tissue or introduction, is that Lex Luthor wants to destroy Superman for some reason, so he has a terrorist organisation in somewhere described as ‘Nairomi, Africa’ (not a typo) machine-gunned which people blame on Superman for some reason, but has them all killed with his own proprietary ammunition for some reason (you may be noticing a theme here) which Lois Lane starts tracking back to him while Superman goes on trial before the US Senate (a jar of Lex’s piss is also involved for some reason). Bruce Wayne wants Superman dead due to the whole complete destruction of Metropolis thing from the last film and spends his spare time building Kryptonite gadgets from a chunk of Zod’s ship, while Lex goads the two into fighting. Then Wonder Woman turns up and they fight a Cave Troll together. If I’m missing anything (and I’m cutting out a lot) it’s because this film manages to be both absurdly convoluted and largely nonsensical. And before you ask no, neither Batman with his detective skills nor Superman with his X-ray vision realise who the other one is, nor does anyone connect the alien superbeing with the Daily Planet reporter who looks uncannily similar to him.

The cast all seem to be trying to see how far it’s possible to remove their characters from the audience’s conception of them while still retaining the name. Batman gets the furthest away, being a murderous psycho who brands criminals and kills at least fifteen people over the course of the movie, and not even in the Arkham games way of snapping their spine while the game insists they’re not dead, he just flat out shoots people. The only thing connecting him to other iterations of Batman I know of (besides the armoured fursuit) is the obligatory opening scene of his parents being shot in slow motion. Superman spends the entire film moping and outside of a poorly-shot montage sequence does very little that could be considered heroic. The entire film also seems to proceed as if his X-ray vision disappeared in between films, as multiple plot points would not be able to happen if Clark took even a cursory glance at his surroundings.

Lex Luthor spends the entire film either very, very high or in the middle of a manic episode, in what can be described as the 2016 version of Eddie Redmayne’s performance in Jupiter Ascending, and as such keeps wavering between entertainingly camp and jarringly annoying from line to line.

And as for Wonder Woman, despite barely five minutes of screentime she’s probably the best part of the movie. Her sudden entrance during the Cave Troll fight accompanied by a sweet guitar riff and subsequent dismembering of said troll is the most engaging the film’s action scenes get, even though I don’t think her and Superman exchange even a single line.

The movie Batman v Superman reminds of the most is probably Oz the Great and Powerful, another film that only exists as set-up for another story. BvS pays lip-service to greater themes of justice and fear and gods and stuff, but it all falls away by the final act leaving our heroes to fight a new enemy who has nothing really to do with anything, and several inconsequential dream sequences and a subplot of Lex tracking the future Justice League members tease future films without adding anything to the movie. I’m not really sure who this movie is for, the bizarrely grim elements are inappropriate for younger viewers (the traditional superhero audience) but unlike Nolan’s films they never coalesce into more thoughtful material that could appeal to adults. In the end I can only think to compare it to watching a twelve-year-old bashing their action figures together for 2 1/2 hours, by the end of which you’ll have long since ceased to care.

The Revenant or (the Expected Vice of Pretension)

So it’s Oscar season again and all the newspapers, blogs and news sites are banging on about the big awards films being thrown out around this time, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence trying to pass for forty, Eddie Redmayne donning his latest outfit of exaggerated physical tics bearing the name of a real person, or Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear. That last one’s not actually accurate but was what largely drew my attention to The Revenant, despite Alejandro Iñárritu’s name plastered all over it like a giant, wailing pretension alarm. In interviews the storied director said “I don’t consider [my] film a Western, Western is in a way a genre, and the problem with genres is that it comes from the word ‘generic’, and I feel that this film is very far from generic,” which is an interesting opinion since his finished product is about as generic and uninspired a revenge story as exists in cinema.

The Revenant is adapted from the novel of the same name, a loose retelling of the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who clawed his way through the American wilderness after being left for dead by his friends following a bear attack. The story as it’s told in the movie is that after the mauling Leonardo DiCaprio is left behind by his party, with only cartoon villain Tom Hardy (wielding an equally cartoonish accent) and his half-Indian son (who exists only so Hardy can kill him and run off) for company. After Hardy’s done the deed he throws DiCaprio in a shallow open grave, and much of the remaining runtime is spent watching DiCaprio crawl his way across the frozen Canadian tundra in a way not so much reminiscent of The Grey as of Homer Simpson’s attempt to jump Springfield Gorge.

A few subplots are thrown in, with an ongoing feud between a Native American tribe and some French soldiers crossing paths with our hero from time to time, but overall the film is shockingly dramatically inert. DiCaprio is the only character with any depth, and about eighty minutes worth of  plot, character and theme are stretched over twice that length, leading to a largely forgettable movie that drags interminably. It’s actually hard to find much of interest to talk about unless you find DiCaprio’s gritted teeth face inherently interesting. This lack of effective drama also leaves the violence largely bereft of weight, causing me to laugh at the bloodshed and dismemberment instead of being in any way horrified.

For all that’s been made of the film’s technical achievements they don’t feel in service of much. It’s superficially pretty but many shots serve no purpose besides trying to ape Terrence Malick, and the much-publicised filming with natural light is undercut by the constant fisheye photography making it feel remarkably artificial. Iñárritu also tries to return to the long takes he used in Birdman, but while he clearly wants to be Alfonso Cuaron he lacks one of Cuaron’s most important talents in that field, that of knowing when to end a long take for dramatic effect. Whereas the famous tour of the warzone in Children of Men and Gravity’s eighteen-minute opening shot end in a way that propels the central drama of the moment to the forefront, Iñárritu’s takes keep going until they just kind of stop, creating a film full of weirdly inconsistent editing.

Heaven’s Gate is the obvious comparison here, another prestige Western by a prima donna director whose ever more ridiculous demands lead it way over budget. But while The Revenant shares that film’s visual spendor and distension of a thin plot and central theme that’s nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, in the end Heaven’s Gate is just a very, deeply okay, if pretty, film while The Revenant is outright terrible, an interminable, pretentious slog only tolerable if you can laugh at brutal violence (and the brief moment where the bear appears to have sodomised DiCaprio). So it’s an almost certain shoe-in for Best Picture in a month or so.

Spectre – Sam Mendes is the Author of All My Pain

It’s easy to forget but James Bond is one of our weirdest enduring cultural phenomenons. Each structurally and dramatically near-identical outing is a unique snapshot of the trends of its time and their concepts of traditional masculinity, which in the end are all that make up Bond as a character. Over the past few years though the series seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, in what appears to be some sort of existential crisis.

The iteration of the plot this time around is that following a personal mission-gone-wrong left to him by the late Judi Dench and opening credits featuring softcore tentacle porn (I’m not kidding), Bond and friends are introduced to Jim Moriarty from Sherlock, mugging like a jackass having clearly been told to ‘do that thing you do on TV’ and cackling about how the double-O section is outdated and he’s firing all our heroes to replace them with a worldwide surveillance system M describes as “Orwell’s worst nightmare”, just in case we missed that he’s the villain. As this plan largely sits on the backburner for most of the film it forms a sort of B-plot, whilst Bond traipses across the globe in pursuit of a mysterious man in a Nehru jacket running a global supervillain network called Spectre. An attempt is made at giving the pair a childhood backstory, but like any character whose appeal relies on being portrayed as ceaselessly cool (see also Batman) any attempt to explicitly define Bond’s childhood feels like it undercuts him as a character.

Half of this film is pointless, but I’m not sure which half. Both villains function identically running their scheme to consolidate multiple country’s intelligence services into a single world-spanning organisation, neither really depends on the other for anything and Moriarty barely has any motivation for any of this. He seems to exist solely so Moneypenny, Q and a very bored Ralph Fiennes have something to do for the climax while Bond is elsewhere. Surprisingly Spectre doesn’t feel overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but at least a third of the script could be cut without effect.

Mendes appears to have either given up or royally screwed his second go at Bond, as almost none of his splendid direction from Skyfall returns here. After a fantastic opening chase through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival the rest is weirdly flat and lifeless, beginning with a fight in a helicopter that largely cuts back and forth between near-identical interior punch shots and repetitive takes of the chopper steady over the parade, before frequently cutting away from dramatic helicopter stunts you’d think you’d want to show off. It only really comes to life again a couple of times during later action sequences, with a particularly fun train punch-up, but even a night-time high-speed pursuit through the streets of Rome feels lethargic. Tonally the film is shaky as well, repeatedly undercutting its general target of a lighter, jokier vibe than its predecessor with jarring death-obsessed moments that would make Katniss Everdeen flinch.

The biggest problem I alluded to earlier though, is that I don’t think this franchise knows what to do with itself. Both Spectre and Skyfall are weirdly defensive movies, seemingly made under the assumption there is some massive cultural backlash against the franchise against which it must assert itself. Skyfall went so far as to have M literally defend the franchise in court with terrorists bursting in at the opportune moment to prove her point, along with a running theme of Bond using low-tech means to save everyone from the new guard’s fuck-ups but Spectre takes it even further. Every five minutes for its first half it has M and Moriarty pop up to say first “The double-O section is outdated, I’m closing it down muhahahaha” and then “No, we totally need the double-O section” over and over again. The public distaste for Quantum of Solace seems to have sapped all this franchise’s confidence and while Skyfall had some Oedipal thing going on and Spectre makes an effort to be The Bourne Ultimatum both these films are essentially thematic tautologies: they exist to explain why they exist.

It’s also emblematic of the way Mendes is going about storytelling here. Whereas films like Goldeneye, Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace created worlds from which the familiar Bond tropes naturally grew Skyfall and Spectre start with those tropes and work backwards to try and justify them. The bad guy has a secret desert villain headquarters with a private torture room not because he’s someone who would do that, but just because that’s what Bond villains do (apparently), just like Bond’s new car having exhaust flamethrowers and an ejector seat, and him and the female lead falling for each other for no discernible reason. The result is that Mendes’ Bond films are just made from bits of other movies without much identity of their own; the villain and scarred baddie from You Only Live Twice, the giant mute henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me (minus anything to make him distinctive) and even the climax feels like a riff on Craig’s first entry.

Spectre is ultimately little more than a hollow shell the Bond franchise has constructed around its own insecurities, and all its insistence about how relevant and vital it is in the modern age just causes me to wonder the opposite. Casino Royale deconstructed the Bond movie almost a decade ago to great acclaim, but you can only play that card once as deconstruction only examines what’s already there without adding anything new. In this new world where the series seems to primarily exist to explain why it exists, do we really need James Bond?