Interlude – A Suicide Squad Revisit

Harley Quinn Margot Robbie

Suicide Squad is now up to a $635 million worldwide haul on a reported $175 million budget.  Without question, that’s a financial success (unless we possibly take into account marketing costs).  But as I saw the movie for a second time over the weekend, more and more issues jumped out at me.  This column is not meant to bash the film (I’m also going to discuss the aspects of the film that I still enjoyed).  Nor is it designed as an attempt to tell anyone that they shouldn’t like or enjoy the film in spite of its problems.  It’s just so obvious to me that, while $635 million (and counting) is a great number, this movie could have made so much more if the filmmakers and studio had had a little more faith in themselves and their characters.  There’s a way to satisfy most everyone rather than just the less-discerning audiences, and when that happens, al involved reap both artistic and financial reward.

(Fair warning . . ..  Unlike all of my other posts, I’ve diving headfirst into this one with full and complete spoilers.  I really want to touch on the good, the bad, and the ugly in specific detail.  Forge ahead if you’re fine with that.  If you aren’t, no problem.  Maybe you can read one or ninety of my other posts, since – you know – you’re already here and all!)

I would first like to state that the reason I saw the movie again is because my parents came to visit for the weekend.  My mom specifically said that she wanted to see Suicide Squad just to see Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  I said in my original Suicide Squad post that Harley is the reason this film got made and this sort of thing just further proves my point.  My initial take on Robbie’s performance was spot on.  She nails it.  For example, when she’s strapped in and being wheeled down the corridor, she gives a glorious, “WHEEEEE!” that perfectly encapsulates Harley.  At every opportunity, she throws those subtleties in and she effortlessly personifies the complexities of the character.

I maintain, however, that Warner Brothers should have relied on comics writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti to assist with the writing for Harley.  They’re the only ones who manage to truly capture her voice through dialogue.  As I said earlier this year, they’re responsible for her current explosion in popularity and they should be acknowledged as such.  Sadly, in the film, she has very little of interest to actually say.  The lines that are supposed to be funny . . . aren’t.  The lines that are supposed to be crazy . . . aren’t.  They’re lines that anybody and everybody on the street say when they think they’re being quick and witty.  Honestly, how many times have you heard someone make a joke about talking to the voices in their head?  That sort of thing is the best writer/director David Ayer has for this character who has taken pop culture by the throat and she deserves better.  She deserves Conner and Palmiotti.  And so do we.  Their Harley is funny, endearing, and fresh.  Still, Robbie rises above the writing deficiencies (of which I’ll speak more about in a bit) and remains the primary reason to see the film.

Will Smith is truly fantastic as Deadshot, just as I remembered.  In fact, he was even a little better than I recalled.  Somehow, either he got all of the witty lines that Harley should have had or Smith adlibbed to inject a spark into the character and make him feel a little more real.  I’m betting on the latter.  There is actual time and effort put into the Deadshot character so that we get to see and understand what his motivations are.  Throughout the jokes and snappy comebacks, Smith maintains a morose demeanor as he longs for nothing other than to be with his daughter.  Or does he?  More on that, later, too.

The second time around, Jared Leto wasn’t as enjoyable for me.  I didn’t hate him.  But I didn’t love him.  I began to notice that his Joker persona felt as it if was just that: a persona.  His performance choices subtly communicate that it’s all an act to get into people’s minds and that he doesn’t really believe it.  It’s all too forced.  The laugh isn’t the sincere, maniacal laugh of a lunatic.  It’s a slow, calculated cackle designed to disturb those around him.  There’s no energy.  No urgency.  He’s slow.  Methodical.  Calculated.  He isn’t manic.  He isn’t over the top.  He’s just another gangster, but with bleached skin.  Some of this was caused by the writing and some of it was due to the performance.

But, as I mentioned in my original post, the writing is where this film truly suffers.  The two biggest calamities are the Harley/Joker relationship and the Enchantress.

The Harley/Joker relationship in the film is a complete mess and results in the internal logic within Suicide Squad being almost completely eradicated.  Let’s look at the beginning of the film, during their escape from Batman.  For some reason, Joker drives their car into the water.  Harley screams, “I can’t swim!” and the next thing we know, Harley is lying unconscious underwater while hanging through the windshield and Joker is gone.  He has unquestionably either left her to drown or -best case scenario – to be caught by Batman.

However, for the rest of the film, we’re to believe that he wants to rescue her from Arkham Asylum.  And why?  Why did he not care enough to help her when he crashed the car, yet suddenly cares enough to repeatedly risk being caught in order to break her out of a maximum security prison?  And why isn’t Harley upset that he left her behind to begin with?

“He thought he had a better chance with his men than one-on-one against Batman!  And he knew Batman wouldn’t let her drown!”  Okay, let’s assume that’s the case.  The biggest problem arises during Joker’s rooftop helicopter rescue of Harley.  After Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) orders the copter to be blown away, missiles connect and Joker pushes Harley out of the helicopter as it explodes.

Under absolutely no scenario does this crucial plot point make any sense.

We know for a fact that scenes featuring Harley and Joker were cut to make their relationship appear less abusive.  As a result, additional editing was necessary on what was left in order for the final narrative to achieve that goal.  As the scene plays in the final film, the helicopter begins to explode and Joker pushes Harley out onto a rooftop to save her life.  For now, let’s continue to tell ourselves that he didn’t leave Harley to die earlier in the film (even though he did).

So, why didn’t he jump with her?

Because he somehow knew he would survive the crash?  How?  He’s just a guy!  And even if he had a plan to survive, why not extend that plan to Harley so they could survive it together?  He clearly thought going down with the copter meant death or he wouldn’t have pushed Harley out under this he-truly-loves-her scenario.  So, it makes no sense that he wouldn’t jump, too, and escape with her.  So, here we again have Joker abandoning Harley and restarting the cycle of attempted rescues.

Now, let’s go with the original intent of the film to portray their relationship as abusive, as it always was in the comics and animated series.  First off, why rescue her to begin with?  Okay, fine, we’ll say he wants her around so he can feel like a big man by continuously grinding her under his boot.  So, he rescues her.  Under the abusive relationship scenario, the prevailing theory is that he pushes her out of the helicopter to kill her.  Why, when it’s just been hit by missiles?  She’s going to die, anyway.  And why does he still not try to escape the copter, himself?

Okay, let’s say the changes in editing mean that he originally wouldn’t have known that the copter was about to be shot down and he would have pushed her out of the copter before it was hit, not knowing that it was about to become a death trap of its own.  Why go through the trouble of rescuing her just to kill her?  Because he wanted the pleasure of doing the honors over Amanda Waller?  Then why hadn’t he killed her already?  How many chances had he had?  This scene was put there for the sake of drama without any real thought behind it.  As a result, irreconcilable contradictions are formed that leave the viewer unsure of who the Joker is and what kind of relationship he and Harley have.  And that would have happened regardless of edits.  They aimed to redefine the relationship as loving instead of abusive.  Instead, it’s neither.

I also maintain that Joker had no business being in this movie at all and a Batman standalone film with Harley and Joker as the villains was pretty much necessary between Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

And then there’s Enchantress.  This is as much of a mess as the Harley/Joker relationship, if not more.  First off, how is it that the Enchantress and June Moone, the one person in thousands of years who just happens to find and unlock Enchantress, look exactly alike before they’re even joined?  Nowhere is it established that Enchantress takes on different forms, so don’t even try that one.

After that, Enchantress manages to escape the clutches of Amanda Waller in a way that she could have pulled off at any given time in their past.  I guess she just didn’t feel like it?  And then, she’s all butthurt about people’s attachments to their iPhones, so she plans to build a machine to destroy the world.  How does this machine work?  What is its function?  What does it require in order to achieve its purpose (it appears that it runs on cars, as that’s what keeps getting sucked into it, maybe?)  And if she can do all the things we had already seen her do by that point, why did she need a machine?  Nobody knows, including David Ayer, apparently.  What we do know is that the machine appears completely constructed within a few seconds as no further progress is made throughout the remainder of the film.  Enchantress just stands in front of it, waving her arms and wiggling her hips while being all, “It’s almost done, okay?!  Gosh!” to her brother, who is all, “Seriously, what’s going on over there?”

Once she gives the Suicide Squad as much time as they need to get there and put the kibosh on her plans, we see that these two super-powerful beings are fortunately completely vulnerable to things like small bombs, fire, punches, and knives.  What a lucky break!  So, the Squad destroys the machine.  Enchantress is still there but she just gives up because I guess she no longer has powers for some reason?  That’s lucky, too!  That’s a completely unexpected side effect because, even though they have once again taken her heart as they had earlier in the film, she still had powers then.  But now?  Nope!  And just in time for the film to end!

Let’s look at some other questions.

  • Amanda Waller says the Squad is constructed to take down “the next Superman” if it’s necessary.  Who, exactly, on the team does she believe can take down Superman?  At that stage, she was under the belief that the Enchantress would be part of the crew.  So, maybe that’s who she had in mind because Enchantress’s magical abilities put her on a similar level?  But Enchantress turns against them and so Waller sends the rest of the Squad against this supposedly Superman-level being.  Again, so lucky that she has a glass jaw!  I wonder how that would have faired against that next potential Superman?
  • All Deadshot talks about is reuniting with his daughter.  It’s made clear throughout the entire film that she is his motivation for everything.  So, when Enchantress gives them the chance to live out their fantasies within their minds, is his being reunited with his daughter?  Nope.  Suddenly, his deepest desire is to kill Batman and his daughter takes a backseat.
  • Speaking of Deadshot and his daughter, during the climax, as he prepares to deal the killing blow to Enchantress’s machine (because among the aforementioned affronts, this world-ending machine constructed by this all-powerful sorceress is also vulnerable to bullets), he hesitates as he recalls his daughter telling him that they can only be together if he doesn’t shoot.  Wha?  How does that memory apply to this particular moment?  He’s trying to save the world, but the film is telling us that, by pulling the trigger, he risks never seeing his daughter again (which we now know is the second-most important thing in the world to him)?  How so, exactly?
  • Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the good guy.  He’s a man of honor who is assigned to the Suicide Squad by Waller to ensure they remain reigned in, under control, and don’t do bad instead of good.  And he takes it seriously.  None of them will kill, maim, or do bad things in any way!  So, when he sees Waller, herself, coldly shoot and murder a room full of good people just because they knew more than they were supposed to know, does he respond with swift, heroic justice, having finally been exposed to the true Waller?  No, he makes a flat comment about her being mean and then walks out of the room at her side.  Good man, Rick Flag.  The best, even.
  • When Harley is escaping on the rope dangling from Joker’s copter, Waller orders Deadshot to kill her.  He lines up, takes the shot, and Harley pretends he connects, with everyone on the rooftop alongside Deadshot assuming that she has just been killed.  By the way, they all assume this even though there’s no blood and Harley continues to hold on to the rope.  Expert killers, this bunch.  This was another predictable attempt at an audience misdirect that we’ve seen a million times and completely falls flat.
  • Diablo is a rough man.  He was born and bred by his hardnosed life, evidenced by the multitude of symbolic tattoos spread all over his face and body.  So, naturally, he finds a domestic goddess to marry.  She cooks him and their two clean-cut kids dinner in their suburban house where they’ll later probably settle in to watch some I Love Lucy reruns on Nick-at-Nite.  This was before he had decided to turn his life around, by the way.  But I guess nobody says that the mean streets don’t allow pastel-colored Polo shirts.
  • Also, Diablo inadvertently kills said wife and kids as a result of not controlling his fire powers.  As he cradles his dead wife in his arms, she appears to have just gotten ready to go grocery shopping, as there are no burns, cuts, bruises, or visible wounds of any kinds.  It’s rather hard to be swept up in the horror of the incident when the visuals run in direct contradiction to the events.

Okay, that’s enough.  I think I’ve made my point.  And I’m not even going to get into the more subjective components like the uninspired but serviceable action scenes or the mixed bag of character designs (though Killer Croc is truly awful-looking with his oversized head and average-sized frame.  He’s one of the smaller male characters in the film.  CGI was the way to go, there.).  And I won’t get into the complete lack of true character development for characters like Katana and Captain Boomerang (a line or two doesn’t count.  Time is necessary.  No Joker thanks to a Batman solo film would have helped.)  These specifics mentioned above aren’t along the lines of a character’s pencil moving from behind their ear to their right hand between shots.  Those types of continuity errors are going to happen in practically every film.

No, these are huge problems that get in the way of story and/or character development, emotional impact, and consistency.  If WB and DC want to succeed at or near the level of their primary competition, they have to realize that their films need to appeal to the masses, who aren’t going to let them slide just because they really like Harley.  Appealing to comic fans alone isn’t enough.  A best-selling comic book typically sells around 100,000 copies.  At $10.00 a ticket, that translates to $1,000,000 in ticket sales.  Practically nothing.

Warner Brothers got away with it, this time, thanks to the Harley appeal.  But if some attention to these types of issues isn’t given, general audiences will wane.  Decide on a vision and stick to it.  Believe in yourselves and your characters.  And listen to the professional criticisms (not the fan criticisms.  Nothing would ever get done, that way.).  I love these characters and I want these movies to do well.  Suicide Squad is in no way the worst film of the year.  It’s not even the worst comic book film of the year (I’m looking at YOU, X-Men: Apocalypse!).  And Wonder Woman‘s trailer looks better and has me feeling more confident than any Suicide Squad trailer ever did.  But the bar has been set high by their competition and, at some point, Warner Brothers needs to invest in a longer pole.

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Interlude – A Suicide Squad Revisit

70. War Dogs

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I’ve been a little hesitant to see War Dogs.  I originally had planned to see it last weekend, but I loved Kubo and the Two Strings so much, I instead opted to see that one a second time.  I like the cast and crew behind War Dogs (which is why I ultimately decided to go for it), but war movies often hold little appeal for me, personally.  And war comedies can be even tougher.  I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot earlier in the year and enjoyed Tina Fey and Margot Robbie but ultimately had a hard time with the film as a whole.  War films tend to repeat the same themes, cover the same ground, and have generally become a repetitive experience that I also can’t relate to.  However, on those occasions when the premise and execution are both truly unique, wonderful things can happen (Bridge of Spies was one of my favorite 2015 films).  The marketing for War Dogs just oozed the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot vibe to me, though, so I sat down to watch it with modest enthusiasm, at best, yet with an open mind, as always.

I found War Dogs to have a little more energy than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but be ultimately less entertaining, which was precisely my fear.  When this film is advertised and marketed as a “comedy” (including invoking director Todd Phillips’s connection to his Hangover series), understand that it’s a comedy in the same way that Greek comedies were comedies.  It’s not particularly funny (with the exception of a line here or there); it just has a tone that’s too light for it to be considered a drama.

The film is based on a true story and follows arms dealers David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as they profit off of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by selling weapons to whoever will buy them.  As they work themselves up the ladder, the bigger they get, the tougher the challenges of the business become.

On one hand, the film really shines a bright light on the specific reasons why the NRA and others in their corner would be in full support of war.  If one didn’t really get it before, they will after watching War Dogs.  It’s all about money.  There are no ethics involved from anyone in the entire process.  All that matters is how much money these people make.  So, in a way, it functions as a sort of public service announcement just months before a potentially terrifying presidential election here in the United States (if you aren’t from the States please don’t associate me with the insanity going on, here.  I’m not a part of it, I swear!).

But on the other hand, despite the best efforts of Teller and Hill, the film just isn’t very fun to watch.  I actually found myself looking at my watch, which I virtually never do when watching a film in the theater.  I’ll say that I enjoyed seeing another chapter in the continuing maturation of Miles Teller as an actor.  I actually enjoyed him as a young Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic in last year’s Fantastic Four (aside from the miscast Toby Kebbel, the cast was not one of the problems with that movie) and he would have been the talk of the industry following Whiplash had J.K. Simmons not given one of the greatest performances of all-time in that very same film.  Even then, Teller continued to earn praise for his contributions which is a huge credit to his emerging talent.  Here in War Dogs, he comes across as a full-blown adult for the first time and I bought it completely.  He carries a confidence and assuredness alongside a vulnerability that communicates the knowledge that he’s capable of great things, but he also has much to lose.

Jonah Hill is good, too, but he plays virtually the same a**hole-who-loves-money-and-drugs that he played in The Wolf of Wall Street.  He plays it well.  It takes remarkably little effort to hate Efraim in this film.  But at this point, he can coast through this part.  He’s come a long way as a talent, too, and I’m ready to see him break further out of his comfort zone.

Beyond that, there’s really not much to see here.  Teller and Hill take a plodding script and pour as much life into it as they can possibly muster.  The true issue here is something that I’ve alluded to, before: There are no propulsive elements to provide the story with forward momentum.  There should always be unresolved story threads or character beats in order to let the audience know that the film is building towards a climax.  There is no sense of build, here.  It’s just a giant first act that falls into a sudden finale.

War Dogs has it’s strong points – particularly Teller – but it’s essentially a hour’s worth of story stretched into a two-hour film that feels like it’s three hours long.  It gets an important message out there at an important time for an audience that might otherwise not be as educated on the topic as they could be.  But it does so in a largely uncompelling  fashion, as the viewer can’t help but question what’s keeping the movie going.  So, while I appreciate the efforts and intentions of the talent involved, my time would have been better spent on a third viewing of Kubo.

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70. War Dogs

69. Don’t Breathe

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Whew!  I almost got through this block of ten movies without seeing any horror films!  I’m glad I kept the streak up and I was pretty excited to see Don’t Breathe.  Rolling into theaters following an excellent marketing campaign and a lot of hype, Don’t Breathe features a truly original concept (have you read my thoughts on original films?) for the horror genre, which is pretty tough to achieve.  It seems like everything has been done but of course, something fresh eventually comes along and turns the genre on its head.

Don’t Breathe follows the efforts of a group of friends who have come to the point in their lives where they have justified becoming burglars.  Rocky, Alex, and Money (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto, respectively) reason that they can make better lives for themselves by committing burglaries and a blind, elderly war veteran seems like the perfect target.  Ironically, looks can be deceiving.

I admittedly had a bit of a rough time getting into Don’t Breathe.  Now, that could have been because of the four people in front of me.  They somehow managed to be unrelentingly distracting without being overtly obnoxious, which is a new one for me.  One of them acted like every single choice the characters made was a stupid choice, even when they had no other options.  Seriously, if someone had just had both of their legs hacked off in this movie, she would have been all, “Stupid!  Run!  Why don’t you run?!”

But beyond that and directly related to the film, the supposed protagonists are, themselves, criminals, as well.  And my house was broken into and burgled, a couple of years ago, so it’s difficult for me to identify or sympathize with this group of people.  When that sort of thing happens to you, it never really goes away.  To this very day, that event is still costing me both money and peace of mind.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez realizes this will be an issue, however, and puts effort into making Rocky and Alex at least somewhat complex and redeemable.  Money, however, is designed to be hated.  For one, he calls himself “Money”.  Also (in reference to Rocky while speaking to Alex), his idea of a romantic line is, “That’s my b**** in there; of course I give a f***!”  Ladies, I’ll wait right here while you swoon, swoon away.

In full disclosure, there were some moments in the first act when I joined my fellow moviegoer in front of me in questioning why our leads weren’t making some obvious decisions that would likely get themselves out of their predicament.  However, when I took a moment and followed my own advice regarding putting myself in their situation, I could accept that decisions in high pressure situations aren’t always made with the brain.  And then, later in the film, they do the things I was waiting for them to do, earlier, so I felt a little better about that as the film progressed.  I can also see how the concept could be a little tough to introduce but has such great ideas for after it gets rolling that Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues might have been willing to ask the audience for a little suspension of disbelief early on in exchange for huge rewards, later.

And happily, as it progressed, I absolutely found myself becoming engaged.  By thirty or forty minutes in, I was fully engrossed in what was playing out on-screen and found myself just sitting back and enjoying the ride.  The premise is taken to some clever places.  It’s also taken to some surprisingly dark and twisted places.  Yet, while it’s rated R, the line is never crossed into overkill territory.  There’s enough violence and blood to get the point across and to have an impact but we aren’t talking Hostel, here.  The effectiveness of Don’t Breathe is far more rooted in suspense, tension, and surprise than gore and disturbing visuals.

Stephen Lang deserves a mention for his portrayal of the nameless blind man.  I was convinced enough by his performance that, if I saw him coming towards me on the sidewalk in broad daylight, I might just cross the street.  But in addition to the obvious fear-inducing menace, he also infuses the part with heartbreak and pathos.  The blind man is a truly reprehensible person.  But he feels entirely justified in his actions.

When it comes down to it, Don’t Breathe centers on some pretty awful people, but the ones that matter the most are complex enough to be believable.  And the fact that I was victimized by people much like them not too long ago and still found myself invested in their plight is a true testament to the writing and performances in Don’t Breathe.  Once the inciting incident occurs, the film blasts off and becomes one pulse-pounding event after another, with some fun surprises along the way.  Throughout the action, the principles continue to be developed by their choices and how they respond to each twist and turn so that, by the end, it’s really clear who these people are.  But the film is so intense and exciting, everything else almost goes by unnoticed until the credits roll and one has time to reflect.  After a bit of a slow start, Don’t Breathe rapidly evolves into a blazing, thrilling, guttural, and original experience that will, appropriately enough, leave you breathless.

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69. Don’t Breathe

#ThrowbackThursday – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

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Original US release date: October 17, 2003
Production budget: $9,500,000
Worldwide gross: $107,071,655

Almost 30 years after the original 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came this shiny updated version from director Marcus Nispel and superstar it-girl Jessica Biel.  Inspired by a true story (which is not the same thing as being “based on” a true story, as this is not), this new millennium remake introduced the story to younger audiences who refuse to watch anything “old”.  Luring audiences in with strong marketing and the Biel appeal, it proved a worthwhile venture for New Line Cinema and company, grossing more than eleven times its production budget.  Again, this is why there are so many horror films; they’re cheap and they make money.

Following the journey of five twenty-something friends on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Dallas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a polished, yet still gritty presentation, focused on mood, ambiance, and jump scares.  There is plenty of each of these things to go around for fans of the genre, but also some of the typical trappings that horror films often fall into.

We meet up with our protagonists in their van, already on the road towards their Dallas destination.  Only one of the five, Biel’s Erin, is truly likable throughout the entirety of the film.  The other four are already engaging in the debauchery that one might expect twenty-somethings on their way to a Skynyrd concert in 1973 to be engaging in.  The first fifteen minutes, or so, are littered with the sophomoric, lowest-common-denominator drug humor that is expected from this type of film.  It’s eye-rolling and in no way endears the audience towards the characters but, thankfully, it also plays itself out fairly quickly, once things start to go sideways for our group.

After picking up a young woman walking alone on the side of the road (the second time the group has done this, seeing as one of the original five was also a hitchhiker before we join the story), things go horribly and we’re off to the races.  From this point on, the film mostly succeeds in its goals.  Massacre makes sure that at least a couple of the main group are completely off-putting so that we don’t feel too guilty when their day goes south.  (At one point, Mike Vogel’s Andy gives a whistle and snaps his fingers at Erica Leerhsen’s Pepper, as if she’s an obedient dog, as a way of communicating that Pepper should follow him.  It was at this moment that I began rooting for his death.)  Aside from Erin, Eric Balfour’s Kemper and Pepper are allowed to show a little bit of wisdom and growth and, therefore, some level of complexity, which is refreshing and does help them become somewhat more sympathetic.  Primarily, however, it’s Erin that audiences will truly care about.  ( I would like to note, however, that while not at all a tolerable human being as a character, Jonathan Tucker gets one scene to truly shine as Morgan and he doesn’t waste it, providing the most memorable few minutes of acting in the entire movie.)

And Erin’s allure is not solely by design of the script.  Biel commands the screen and projects an easy, natural charisma that make her hard to look away from or root against.  This film was made at the beginning of her rise and she was still primarily known for her long-running role on the family television drama 7h Heaven.  Massacre was considered a huge departure for her and she needed to make the most of it to further her attempt to break free of the wholesome image that had been thrust upon her by Heaven.  And it wasn’t only about wearing low-rise jeans and a tight white tank top for ninety minutes (though that didn’t hurt her efforts).  She also had to show that she could be something and someone entirely different from what audiences had become accustomed to seeing her as.  She pulls it off with ease, here, simultaneously playing the role of relatable audience surrogate and tough-as-nails independent badass.  I would even venture to say that Biel is the only reason this film was memorable for me as, any time I reflect upon it, I see her in my head and not blood, gore, chainsaws, or Leatherface.  There are so many horror films – and nearly all of them with attractive people aimed at appealing to any and all persuasions running around – that it’s tough to break out and be memorable, so for Biel to nearly single-handedly make that happen is a testament to her abilities, efforts, and presence.

The horror elements of Texas Chainsaw Massacre are vastly successful.  There are definitely some issues with the internal logic of the film in certain parts, but internal logic isn’t the appeal of a film like this.  Sure, it’s always nice when everything clicks on every level, but I can forgive some continuity problems if the horror works.  And it does.  What I particularly like is that there’s enough of each type of horror to satisfy any brand of fan.  Jump scares?  Plenty!  Leatherface’s first full reveal is impeccably and impactfully achieved.  Blood and gore?  Don’t look, Grandma!  Mood, atmosphere, and suspense?  That’s the best part for me!  Once the first Unfortunate Event occurs, the tension grows and grows and grows with each successive happening, each new character, and each ensuing scene.  There is absolutely no relief, no respite.  Nispel refuses to let the audience off the hook once the ball is rolling and the result is a nail-biting, nearly torturous experience that stays with you long after the film concludes.  That sounds horrible, out of context, but isn’t this why we watch horror movies?  So, yeah, I don’t care as much if character A should have been walking in the opposite direction from where they were walking or if character B’s shirt wasn’t tied off in the scene before this one, but now it is.  Not if the film succeeds in being as unsettling from beginning to end as this one is.

A lot of people will hammer 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply because it’s a remake.  That’s lazy and unfair.  Maybe the idea isn’t an original one, but the delivery of said idea is energetic and has the benefit of Jessica Biel who nearly (though inadvertently) overshadows the rest of the film due to her natural on-screen presence and it-factor.  Biel and the overall atmosphere/ambiance are the two defining characteristics of 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and both help to keep it relevant and memorable almost 13 years later.  If you don’t like horror, I can’t imagine that you would want to watch this film.  Otherwise, I think 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre has plenty of thrills to offer up for a revisit from fans of the genre.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Interlude – This Weekend Proved That Americans Don’t Want Movie “Originality”

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Kubo and the Two Strings is everything movie audiences claim to want.

The weekend of August 19-21, 2016, was a very telling one at the domestic box office.  Going into its third weekend, Suicide Squad had performed very strongly over the course of its first week, before plunging over 67% when comparing its first and second weekend grosses.  It was always going to come busting out of the gate due to the anticipation of seeing Harley Quinn and the Joker, but the film seems to have little to offer beyond that, resulting in a deluge of negativity from both professional critics and general audiences.  After Suicide Squad apologists (for the record, I liked the movie for certain elements and performances, but it’s undeniably a mess from a filmmaking perspective) reveled in their brags that the film broke the August opening weekend record set by Guardians of the Galaxy (which, again, it was destined to do, thanks to Harley.  GotG featured no highly-anticipated debuting characters of which to speak.  Not to most people, at least.), they have gone awfully quiet having since come to the realization that Guardians will end up with a much higher overall gross, despite the slower – but still impressive – start.

So, opening against Suicide Squad on the weekend of August 19 (where Squad grossed $20.9 million) were three new wide releases.  One of them was the remake of the 1959 William Wyler/Charlton Heston epic Ben-Hur.  The second was the war comedy War Dogs starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller and directed by Todd Phillips, best known for The Hangover and its sequels.  And the final new release of the weekend was the fourth film from stop-motion animation studio Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings.

Ben-Hur was pretty much destined to fail.  With a $100 million budget (relatively modest for a hopeful blockbuster), Paramount proceeded to cast no one of any real appeal and to make a movie that very few had any interest in seeing.  The original version is revered and there’s nothing in the source material that justifies a modern update.  Critics savaged it and it really had no chance of succeeding.  With an $11.2 million opening weekend, Ben-Hur has virtually no path to making a profit unless it does huge overseas numbers, which seems unlikely.

War Dogs performed a little better, relatively speaking, due to the appeal of its leads.  With a reported $50 million budget, the film earned $21 million and change worldwide ($14 million, domestically) over the weekend of discussion.  Still, it will need to reach a total of at least $100 million in order to break even, if not a little more, meaning it will need to gross at least five times its opening weekend.  This is practically unheard of.  While critics liked it more than they did Ben-Hur, reviews were mixed, overall, and war comedies are a tough sell, anyway.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also underperformed, earlier this year.  In general, people don’t want to laugh at war.

The third release, Kubo and the Two Strings, was released by Laika Studios, whose previous efforts consisted of Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls.  Outside of all four of the films being produced through stop-motion animation, Kubo shares little in common with the other three, which were bordering on mild horror-comedies.  Kubo is a family tale about love, loss, and storytelling, with a couple of somewhat scary – and super-awesome – villains.  It’s a completely original story set in ancient Japan that features drama, action, humor, and the most beautiful visuals of any film from 2016.  In general, critics have heaped untold praise upon it (it sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, but make sure you understand what that really means) and virtually anyone who sees it proclaims it to be an instant classic.  There is plenty of subtext, brains, and heart, and one look at any Kubo-themed message boards will also reveal it to be tremendously thought-provoking.  In short, in my mind and the minds of many others that I’ve seen, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best film of the year, so far, and it frankly isn’t even close.

It made $12.6 million dollars over the course of the domestic opening weekend on a $60 million budget, coming in fourth place.

So, the relative soft openings of Ben-Hur and War Dogs are understandable, as discussed.  But Kubo is everything that audiences claim to want so, so badly.  “Hollywood is out of original ideas!”  “Movies are always sequels or remakes!  Give us something different!”  “I’m tired of the brainless blockbuster!”  “It’s all comic book movies, all the time!”  In Kubo, we have an original, non-sequel, non-remake, non-comic-book movie with brains that is different from anything that has ever hit the big screen.  So where were all of the big talkers?  Why didn’t they show up?

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Edge of Tomorrow blew critics and audiences (who saw it) away, but only made $100 million domestically, relying on foreign audiences to salvage its $178 million budget.

 

1.  I didn’t know about it!
Okay.  I can buy that.  Laika doesn’t have the bank account that so many other studios do.  The film cost $60 million, as it is, so they put it out there as much as they could, which isn’t going to be as much as a film from Disney or Universal.  No Olympics ads.  No Times Square billboards (that I know of.  I’d be shocked but, please, correct me if I’m wrong.).  But I have one response to that.  If you aren’t paying close enough attention to what movies are coming out without needing advertisements shoved into your face, that’s fine.  But that also means that you aren’t knowledgeable or interested enough to be making judgements about what actually is being released.  You aren’t justified in complaining about any movies being released or not being released if you aren’t going to bother keeping up with said releases and then supporting the films that you claim you’re oh-so-desperate to see.  So, move on, please.

2.  It’s a cartoon!
Boo-hoo.  This is also suggestive of ignorance on the topic of film.  Firstly, more work goes into stop-motion animation than practically any other type of film – animated or not – that is being produced at this time.  You think you work hard at your job?  Try making a feature-length stop-motion animated film.  The number of people that it takes and the multitude of man-hours necessary to make even a bad one is staggering.  To make one like Kubo?  I can’t even begin to imagine.  It’s an art form and it’s an art form that this studio, specifically, is pushing forward into areas that were previously unimaginable.

Also, being animated doesn’t preclude it from also being sophisticated.  In fact, I’d say Kubo is far more adult and mature than pretty much anything that can be seen on the so-called Learning Channel, these days.  There is a vast difference between a family film and a kids’ film.  Kids’ films are made specifically for children, with no consideration for any adults who may also be there, whether they’re with kids or not.  Family films are films that are suitable for children but made to be enjoyed by anyone of any age.  These films are oftentimes of very high quality because much effort is put into appealing to a broad spectrum of people and the easy methods of luring viewers in (violence, sex, profanity) are virtually out the window, necessitating that character and story carry the load.

So using the reductive label of “cartoon” in an effort to dismiss Kubo or other films of its ilk is ignorant, unfair, and it simply doesn’t fly.

3.  I didn’t have time!
Okay, that can happen.  If that was the case, then no problem.  I also have to assume that you will see it at a later date (better hurry!) and that will bear itself out in its final gross.  Because, worldwide, this film needs to make about $150 million to make a profit.  I do think it has a good chance of breaking out, internationally, but I’d rather not depend on that.  So, we’re cool, number three people.  So far.

4.  It looks weird!
Oh, it looks “weird”?  What that really means is, “It looks different,” which is exactly what you keep saying you want!  This is one of my biggest pet peeves that I hear from people regarding a reason why they don’t want to see a given film.  Try it!  Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but try it!  Enough with saying that there’s no originality in the motion picture industry!  Original films are all over the place but when people see them advertised, they just talk about how “weird” or “stupid” it looks and then they avoid it!  Just off the top of my head, how many of the following movies (in no particular order) from within the last three years did you see in the theater?

Her, Room, Edge of Tomorrow, Nightcrawler, Unfriended, Pacific Rim, Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, The Gift, Sicario, Brooklyn, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch, Midnight Special, Café Society, A Hologram for the King, The Neon Demon

If you’ve seen more than three of them in the theater, my hat is off to you.  All of them are unique unto themselves, with fresh vision and execution.  Not all of them are particularly well-regarded (though most are).  And even I didn’t like every one of them (I hated The Neon Demon).  But they’re all original, different, and ambitious.  And each of them might “look weird” because of it.  You can’t have it both ways.

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Ex Machina grossed $37 million on a $15 million budget.  Possibly just enough to make a small profit.

 

5.  I don’t have the money and they aren’t on torrent sites!
Well, you’re not doing anybody any good, even if you watch them, if you’re watching them through torrent sites.  This is simple; these types of films have to make money!  If you’re stealing them (which is what you’re doing if you’re watching for free, I don’t care how you justify it), you aren’t supporting them.  You’re even causing more harm than the people who don’t watch them, at all.  You know what I don’t have the money for?  A Jaguar.  You know what I don’t have?  A Jaguar.

6. Why do you even care, Stephen?  You’re not making any money off of these movies!
Is that the only reason to care?  No, I’m not making money from movies.  I’m giving my money to movies.  I do it willingly and happily, even to movies that I don’t like, such as the aforementioned The Neon Demon.  Why?  For the same reason that I care about how much money movies like Kubo make: I love movies and I respect the art form and everyone who partakes in it.

I care because I not only love movies, but I especially love GREAT movies.  Like Kubo.  And Room.  And Ex Machina.  And if audiences keep saying that they love and want those types of movies, but then don’t back it up with their bank accounts, we will get fewer of those types of movies!

Laika’s films barely turn a profit.  If Kubo actually loses money, and then Laika’s follow-up loses money as well, how much longer can the production house continue?  How many more films will get from them?  Two?  One?  None?  RKO pictures almost went out of business until they were saved in 1933 by a hugely profitable movie called King KongKing Kong was completely unique at the time and people responded.  As a result, RKO flourished and went on to give us(among others) Citizen Kane.  Without audiences supporting Kong, the entire industry would have been different.  If Kubo is this good, what else might Laika have up its sleeve?  Well, if it doesn’t survive, it won’t even have sleeves.

6.  I don’t care what the critics think.  The critics are always wrong.
Oh, good lord.  This is the cry of those who have no interest in maturing as a moviegoer.  Let’s break this statement down.  First of all, who are “the” critics?  Different critics have different takes on different films.  Are “the” critics wrong about Suicide Squad?  How does that work?  Sure, maybe 75% or so agree in general that it wasn’t particularly well-made.  But then about 25% say that it was.  So, which ones are wrong?  How can they all be wrong in any one person’s eyes?

Okay, then, let’s assume you mean that the overwhelming majority of critics are “always” or even “usually” wrong.  This little gem seems to pop up whenever someone is trying to convince themselves that a movie they like or want to like is better than it is.  So when the majority of critics dislike a movie the person want to like, the critics are “always” or “usually” wrong according to that person.  But then, when those same critics overwhelmingly love a movie that the same person wants to love, suddenly it’s, “Hooray!  It’s good!  I knew it would be!”

Funny how that works.

But people will use that anti-critic bias to justify not seeing something new or different.  Critics respond to new and different.  It’s not a guaranteed path to positive critical reception, but it’s a good start.  So, when critics see a film that feels new and fresh, they’re likely to praise the film for possessing those qualities.  Audiences then see that critics like a movie that appears otherwise challenging to them in some way (not enough action, too political, etc.) and they say that they won’t like it because (say it with me) “the critics are always wrong”.

Note that critics know what they’re talking about.  If a majority of critics claim that a specific movie has a particular problem, you can bank on it being true.  They were pretty spot on about their criticisms of Suicide Squad.  Now, overall, I enjoyed the movie, anyway, thanks mostly to Margot Robbie.  But that doesn’t mean the problems weren’t there.

So, the majority of critics, when speaking in consensus are almost always right, whether their particular criticisms of the film affect your level of enjoyment or not.  You can like a movie that isn’t particularly good.  And you can dislike one that is.  It’s really okay.

My point is this: If the critics seem to overwhelmingly love a specific film, it’s probably pretty good and you might want to think about checking it out.  And, while watching it, think about what’s playing out on-screen and look for the things the critics were praising.  You might recognize that it’s well-made but still not enjoy it.  That happens to me quite a bit.  But you also might discover something that you love that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Bottom line:  Look, I guess you’re going to see what you’re going to see.  But if you’re going to proclaim that you’re tired of remakes and sequels (both of which typically also require originality in their own right, but that’s another column for another day), then it’s time to put up or shut up.  If you don’t want to see movies like Kubo or Ex Machina, then don’t.  But you also can’t pretend to have any sort of true interest in film or what movies studios are putting out.  I don’t have any interest in professional basketball.  And you’ll also notice that this isn’t a professional basketball site.  So, sure, try to sound smart and insightful by whining about how there’s “no originality in Hollywood”.  But in reality, you’ve just exposed your own ignorance and your outright refusal to help fix the supposed problem that you insist you’re so passionate about.

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Interlude – This Weekend Proved That Americans Don’t Want Movie “Originality”

68. Florence Foster Jenkins

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What’s a year of 100 movies without Meryl Streep, right?!  Truth be told, though, director Stephen Frears is the main attraction for me, here.  That’s not a knock on Meryl Streep.  I enjoy her work as much as the next guy.  It’s just that Frears’s Philomena was easily one of my favorite films of 2013 (wow, was it really that long ago?) so I was anxious to see what he was bringing to the table with his latest foray into comedy.

Florence Foster Jenkins tells the true story of the eponymous Jenkins (Streep), who has always longed to be a classical vocalist.  The problem at hand, however, is that she’s a horrible singer and everyone knows it except for her.

While Frears and his film have the noblest of intentions, the humor consists of a single joke, repeated over and over throughout the course of the film.  There’s no subtlety.  No subtext.  Just one joke, and you better like it because it’s not going anywhere for two hours.

This disappointed me, because I loved the wit and sharpness in Frears’s Philomena.  Alas, this is a different, lesser film.  Aside from that, the reasoning behind why everyone in Florence’s life enables her delusions is revealed early on.  Quite frankly, that reveal should make it difficult for anyone with a half of an ounce of empathy in their body to find anything that follows remotely funny.  The entirety of the proceedings quickly become sad and disheartening, stripping the film of any true lightheartedness that seems promised at the outset.

There’s also one scene in particular that stuck out to me in all the wrong ways.  Without describing the context, it’s a dream sequence where Jenkins has the beautiful voice she’s always dreamed of having.  I can admit that the scene was worked into the film in an effective way, but I also can’t help but wonder if this was a vanity scene for Streep so that the world would know that she can, in reality, sing pretty well and the rest of what we see is just (*wink*) capital-A Acting.

Having gotten through that, the film isn’t without its merits.  At its heart lies a thought-provoking question of duality and dichotomy: When is it helpful to enable a loved one and when is it harmful?  There is no easy answer to that question, and that allows the characters in Jenkins to attain a level of complexity that greatly benefits the entire project.  There are no heroes and there are no villains.  There are just people trying to figure their way through a tough situation while protecting the feelings of someone that they love.

Also addressed in serendipitous fashion – if not as extensively as it may be addressed elsewhere – is the divide between audiences and critics.  Critics know what they’re talking about, as a whole, and audiences resent them for their honesty and integrity.  The critical perspective is briefly touched upon while the overreactions that audiences tend to have towards the critics is addressed in greater depth.

All in all, I found Florence Foster Jenkins to be a largely uncomfortable watch.  It feels like the audience is being encouraged to join in on the humiliation of a sweethearted woman who isn’t in on the joke.  There are some interesting things going on underneath the surface (except when it comes to the supposedly comedic aspects) but getting to that point is rather painful for anyone who’s able to feel compassion for others.  I believe the ultimate message of the film is to do what you love and live life your own way, no matter what anyone else says.  That’s a nice sentiment but I wish I could convince myself that a film that spends over 90 minutes mocking someone for doing just that is completely sincere in voicing it.

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68. Florence Foster Jenkins

67. Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Here’s a secret: I’ve never been crazy about Disney’s original Pete’s Dragon.  Really, it was only because of Mickey Rooney’s hammy performance.  Even as a kid, I thought he was pretty awful in that movie.  I hated his performance so much that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film.  So, finally, I have myself a Mickey-Rooney-free Pete’s Dragon!  To those unimaginative folk out there who like to spew clichés about how “there’s no reason” to remake films, I’ve just illustrated how untrue and short-sighted that statement really is.

 Anyway, I haven’t seen that original film since I was a little kid so I remember virtually nothing about the story or characters.  Thus, this won’t be anything approaching a contrast/comparison piece.  This 2016 version might as well have been completely original to me.

Or at least, that should have been the idea.  But even without remembering the 1977 version, I can’t in good conscience call 2016’s Pete’s Dragon “original”.  I was really hoping for something outside the box with regards to the narrative but instead, Pete’s Dragon serves up the predictable retread of themes frequently addressed by Frankenstein, King Kong, and 54 years of Hulk stories.  The themes aren’t bad or even poorly executed.  I just find it lazy.

It doesn’t end there, unfortunately.  We also get recycled gags (including a very memorable one from Jurassic Park that Pete’s Dragon actually uses twice), one-liners, and character archetypes.  The only aspect of the film that stands out to me as being something I wouldn’t have expected is the fur on Elliott the dragon.  And that’s hardly enough to make up the difference.

In truth, it’s not a “bad” movie, per se.  But the entire production just feels downplayed and . . . “muted” is the word, maybe?  Everything.  Visually, sonically, thematically, it’s as if director David Lowery wants the film to have as little impact as possible.

Lowery also perpetrates the filmmaking technique that has become my own personal pet peeve; a large chunk of the story is told and not shown.  Film is a visual medium.  Audiences need to actually see the important parts of the story.  The entire genesis of the relationship between Pete and Elliott is glossed over within the first few minutes with a “Six years later . . .” caption.  Any emotional impact that the film – particularly its climax – would and could have is almost totally nullified by this decision.  We are supposed to believe that there’s a special bond between Pete and Elliott, not because we actually see it develop, but because the filmmakers just tell us that there is.  It doesn’t work that way.  There’s no history for us to share with them or to reflect upon.  We witness no defining moments that convincingly illustrate how close they are or why.  Lowery is an inexperienced filmmaker and it really shows.  But Disney knows these things and should have stepped in to help out, a bit.

If there is any slight moment of true emotion in the film, it’s entirely due to the sheer will of Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace).  She doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, and when she has some, she isn’t asked to do a whole lot, but when she’s finally given a moment, she doesn’t waste it.  Really, nobody is given much to do.  In fact, only two or three things even happen over the course of the film.  Robert Redford (Meacham) comes across as perfectly natural and comfortable but he mostly just stands around and tries to convince people he isn’t crazy (another movie cliché that Pete’s Dragon doesn’t bother avoiding).  Wes Bentley (Jack) is as wooden as ever.  And Karl Urban’s Gavin is basically a jerk version of Karl Urban.  Nobody is required to push themselves.

And that applies to virtually every department, not just the cast.  It’s about as easygoing a film as I’ve ever seen, casually strolling from scene to scene, being quiet enough to not wake the kids that have fallen asleep in the audience, as one sits there in the hope that it’s building to something fresh and unique.  Nope.  Even when there’s an apparent attempt at constructing a scene featuring something eventful and exciting, it plays out in the most obvious and predictable of ways.  I just kept hoping for something more.

Pete’s Dragon is the very epitome of mediocre.  It’s competently made from a technical standpoint but from a creative standpoint, it’s a greatest hits collection from a cavalcade of films and television shows that you’ve seen before who not only did these things first, but also did them better.

My suggestion: if you see only one movie, this weekend, see Kubo and the Two Strings.  If you see two movies, this weekend, see Kubo and the Two Strings twice.

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67. Pete’s Dragon (2016)