Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

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Let’s not split hairs: Suicide Squad is a veritable How-To manual in making an absolute incoherent catastrophe of shambolic narration, cynical pandering and intensely problematic racial and sexual politics. And yet, somehow, I didn’t hate it.

It’s actually interesting how paradoxical this film’s existence really is. What feels like a good 20 minutes of the film’s beginning is literally someone eating steak, going through a file, and talking about some – not even all – of the characters who are to be rounded up and become the originally named “Task Force X,” aka the “Suicide Squad” in question. Sure, there are flashbacks contained within the description, but only really as visual aids to the narration – after all, if the introductory scenes to these characters were considered strong enough, they wouldn’t need some suits explaining to us who these people were, or what their motivations are. So, although this is essentially an action whose intended audience is clearly the exact age of the rating (15), the film-makers somehow figured that talking talking talking would be a preferable introduction to a motley band of super villains… and Captain Boomerang… who’s little more than a fake Tom Hardy, armed with a children’s toy. Ironically for a film that relies so heavily on exposition, nobody ever really stops to answer “why?” Why did you set this up on essentially a whim with virtually no provocation?Why do you think you actually need an ANYTHING Squad, when you believed yourself to be in control of a witch/goddess (which is it, by the way?)-possessed woman who can literally dash off to Tehran in half a second, steal nuclear documents, then dash back? Why do we spend so much time building up some sort of energy with the prison guard, for absolutely no pay-off? Why did you only introduce some of the villains in the file, then tack on a couple more halfway through? Why, when you’ve literally implanted bombs in the necks of each member of the Squad, does Rick Flag need Katana to help him control the team, at all? Also, why are we supposed to care about Rick Flag at all? Why are we supposed to care about anything?

Perhaps this is the conceit of the 21st century comic book film: they assume everyone walking into the cinema is a hardened fan, who’s seen everything, and blow anyone who isn’t. Certainly, when I saw The Avengers, with its bad guy from Thor using the weapon from Captain America, when all I’d seen was the first two Iron Man films, I felt genuinely punished for my complete absence of loyalty to this insidiously ubiquitous franchise. Suicide Squad proudly displaying what I can only imagine is a major spoiler from the end of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I have not yet seen, suggests exactly the same thing. Indeed, Suicide Squad shows such an aggressive bravado in its wholly unwarranted self-confidence, I almost feel as though it were daring me to question its, or its characters motives and motivations, beyond the most intuitively asinine.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the characters: Deadshot, by virtue of Will Smith, is an enjoyable enough and watchable enough boilerplate Will Smith experience. His character’s been given a cute daughter and, my god, please Hollywood stop giving criminals cute daughters! just for a change, I’d like to see them be givenany other kind of motivation. (Mental note: watch John Wick, apparently his motivation’s the death of his dog. That works.) Diablo (Jay Hernandez) at least has an element of complexity, due to his sympathetic repentance for a truly terrible crime. However, he is for the most part reduced to a walking, talking racial stereotype, even if not too ugly a one. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a disgustingly underused character, not only because Croc is invariably awesome, but also because he is being portrayed by an absolutely fantastic actor in Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who was without a doubt one of the best elements of the TV series Lost. He is also reduced to a disappointing racial stereotype – his “demands” at the end of the film apparently being a widescreen TV showing non-stop generic sexist rap videos, and a shelfful of Hennessy. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is a bland racial stereotype (anyone see a pattern emerging?), with nothing but a samurai sword and a “you killed my father; prepare to die” storyline. Slipknot (Adam Beach)… well, we don’t know a single thing about him, other than the fact he is played by a First Nations Canadian, wasn’t even considered worthy of a backstory, and is killed before he’s said 10 lines. Seriously, this film is racially abysmal.

And then, of course, we have Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). The portrayal of their relationship is utterly gross. It is depicted unambiguously as being one of an extremely controlling, coercive and abusive nature, and also depicted unambiguously as being one worthy of romanticisation. There are already multiple essays and articles on this topic, so I shan’t waste much time dwelling on this, here, but what’s really frustrating is that, if we are to see Harley as a character almost entirely defined by her devotion to an abusive, largely absent, psychopath, her response to thinking her puddin’ has just died in a helicopter crash is not going to be snuffling for two seconds and then sucking it up, buttercup, and putting a brave face on things. That’s just not how these things work. This film is so utterly lazy in its narrative threads, it will happily have 180º levels of inconsistency in its protagonists. Honestly, I think Jared Leto’s performance as Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka and The Mad Hatter’s performance as the Joker is reasonably passable. I mean, it without a doubt is the weakest performance I’ve seen committed to screen, from Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill, but that’s not saying all that much, considering the powerhouses all those performances have been. Arguably, the strength of his own, such as it is, lies almost entirely in its sporadic brevity. Contrary to what everyone’s favourite overrated emo, Ayn Rand-reading, marginalised community-appropriating asshole of an undeserving Oscar winner seems to think, a film named Suicide Squad – a squad of which Joker is not a member – was always going to be an ensemble piece in which Joker should not be a protagonist. Thus, he exists more as an idea – specifically an idea of pleasure for Harley and trepidation for everyone else – than he does as an actual game player. Harley’s existence in this film as a character removed from him is… debatable. However, she’s funny and well acted, even if she does keep spouting lines off of mass-produced Camden Market t-shirts from over ten years ago: “‘normal’ is a setting on the dryer,” yeesh.

Cara Delevigne as Dr June Moon / Enchantress, the possessed child archaeologist, is interestingly terrible. She does a reasonably steady job, when the two identities are separate, Enchantress being portrayed not at all badly by CGI but, by the time she takes over, the film-makers clearly decided it would be wrong to hide the beauty of a skinny white woman (though clearly not the beauty of an exceptionally attractive Black man), and thus strip her of all her dignity by sticking her in one of the most pathetically appropriative garbs I’ve seen since the sound era. I say “since the sound era,” given that June Moon / Enchantress’ headdress and ridiculous twitchy shoulder-based dance moves are clearly based upon the Evil Maria clone from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. Only difference is, whilst Brigitte Helm was clearly having the time of her life, throwing shapes in a ridiculous get-up, there’s absolutely no joy in the absurdity of Delevigne’s villain. Thus, we can only squirm in embarrassment and humiliation on her behalf.

Between the under-arm serves by way of humour, the trick-or-treat costuming, the inanely quotable lines, Suicide Squad painfully appears to be the filmic equivalent of Reading Festival. And then in comes the music, to confirm it all: “Paranoid,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Seven Nation Army” – these are all quite literally the songs you expect to be playing on the PA system before a bank holiday music festival headliner comes on, and they are all played, seemingly at total random, for no reason other than to have a blandly cool soundtrack. At least Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” seems vaguely appropriate, playing whilst Deadshot – a bald, Black man – is on the screen. Seriously, this bloody film…

For some reason, though, there were just enough jokes to make me actually laugh, there was just enough action to keep me excited, and there was just enough charm in a couple of the performances – not least Smith and Robbie’s – to make sitting through all 130 minutes of this disasterpiece not quite the teeth-grinding, migraine-inducing nightmare I worried it might be. By no stretch of the imagination can I recommend this film to anyone. Is it that bad? Absolutely, but it’s not THAT that bad.

**

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Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)

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“Oh, poor Mr Costner; he tries so hard” – Lisa Simpson
Honestly, I think people are being really quite mean about Kevin Costner in this. I only believe he’s a serial killer slightly less than I believe Michael C. Hall is one and I watched, like, seven and a bit series of Dexter before finally giving up! Mr. Brooks is a strangely ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, film about the eponymous, admired philanthropic businessman (Costner), undergoing a relapse into his serial killing addiction, the voice and face of whom is portrayed by William Hurt. Blackmailed into allowing a tag-along, he begins to worry his daughter who may also be a killer… and then Demi Moore’s a millionaire cop, getting chased by an escaped serial killer… whilst getting divorced… honestly, there’s a lot of threads, none of them are all that satisfying.

The strange, unsuccessful, ambition mentioned above largely rests on the way Mr. (not going to lie, that unnecessary period is killing me) Brooks flip-flops stylistically between genres in a way that feels, rather than impressively postmodern, even more distracting than the way The Dark Knight Rises constantly flip-flopped between letterbox and IMAX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of Mr. Brooks is a fairly standard David Fincher rip-off, with phlegmatic dolly shots, roaming stately homes of minimalist design, à la Panic Room and Gone Girl, but then someone will all of a sudden discover a dead body, presented as an almost carbon-copy of Se7en. Moore’s Detective Atwood at points encounters her escaped serial killer, at which point the entire film shifts uncomfortably from “psychological thriller” to pure, and frankly stupid, action film territory, not unlike one of the newer, regrettable, Die Hard sequels for a maximum of 2 minutes, before quietening down again. Her divorce, naturally, looks like what would happen if Joel Schumacher tried to direct The Squid and the Whale.

The film is not without merits – Costner and Hurt really are very good, and I do think that, much like Christine, Mr. Brooks makes a genuinely good go at using a horror/thriller format to represent the psychological and personal realities of addiction very well. What’s most interesting, though, it Mr. Brooks‘ ability somehow to be at once not very exciting at all, but still just engrossing enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen next. All in all, the film is an utter mess, but still, a slightly fun one.

 

**

Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffé, 2014)

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A film I feel like I’ve seen a million times at this stage due to my usually reliably lesbian best friend’s obsession with both Colin Firth and Mark Strong, Before I Go to Sleep combines the Memento premise of reoccurring short-term-memory loss, the “is my partner secretly a psychopath?” trope of Suspicion, and the “spooky hotel corridor” visions of The Shining, but with a dispassionate Britishness of sensibility that produces the psychological thriller equivalent of a soggy, grey-skied afternoon.

Goodness knows, the London-based melodramatic kitchen sink thriller (surely there must be a potential abbreviation in there somewhere?) needn’t be nothingy – I mean, I’m hardly in love withNotes On a Scandal, but it was at least pretty meaty in terms of character development and interaction, cause and effect. The problem in Before I Go to Sleep may lie in its presentation of Christine (Nicole Kidman)’s anterograde amnesia: by having her memory reset to a time long before the incident that caused her brain damage, every time she goes to bed, her personality itself becomes essentially a blank slate each day. Now, that’s actually a pretty good set up, but only when either the writer is skilled enough to establish and re-establish interpersonal relations between characters both efficiently and meaningfully, or at the very least the actor gives a strong enough performance to tease out said emotional veracity which, unsurprisingly, Nicole Kidman as ever fails to do. Thus, most conversations in Before I Go to Sleepessentially translate to:

“Agh! Who are you?”
“I’m X, you can trust me, honest…”
“Oh… ‘kay.”

The absence of personality in Christine, not to mention the absence of charisma in Kidman, leaves Colin Firth’s suspicious husband character as the character most worthy of our interest though, even then, the dialogue never really takes off: “Christine, you’re 40,” he tells her as the film starts, in a tone of voice that implies she just walked into the room in fishnets and a miniskirt. Mark Strong’s dashing doctor character is yet another phone-in who never manages to raise tension – of dread or sexuality – high enough to have any particular impact on the plot. Thus, when The Revelation finally occurs, the audience can essentially rest easy that the mystery is over, but sigh deeply for the film isn’t yet.

**

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**

 

Circle (Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, 2015)

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If the Cube series taught us anything, it was that the point about Kafka-esque locked-room sci-fi scenarios is that, if you want to know what’s on the other side of the door, it’s because you really don’t know what you want. This fact absolutely remains set in stone for Circle. A motley group of 50 find themselves in a circular room that kills a person at random every two minutes, until they quickly realise they have the ability to vote for who dies next.

Unlike the first and best Cube, which does in fact hold an escape route found within a savant’s ability to perform mental arithmetics to the level of prime factorisation, both the survival stratagem and plot ofCircle is at once more accessible and more cruel, on the basis of it coming down to a considerably more human element: personality, prejudice, biased consideration.

There is an exceptionally strong potential, just bubbling below the surface of Circle in which racism, classism and queerphobia, not to mention the more abstract inner-workings of the human psyche could have really been addressed, but all we get is, well, surface. A couple of easy stereotypical bigot lines you could have lifted from a youtube comments section on a very, very slow day and you start to wonder why the majority lets some of the assholes live for as long as they do, especially considering they decide to kill all the people in their 70s and 80s first, then turn instantly to a 52-year old woman, even though one of the biggest douches of the bunch is clearly never going to see 60 again.

Circle, particularly on account of its shape and the almost farcical hopelessness of the plight did make me think not only of Kafka but Foucault and his panopticon, and was certainly diverted by how quickly and earnestly the characters establish pathetic voting rituals and teams, making threats and promises, all constantly talking about “buying time” to work out how to fight back, but never even bothering to do so… there’s a lot to read into, there, and a lot of allegories to make.

However, there just isn’t anywhere near enough meat on the bones to inspire anyone to bother to do so, and the ending is a really disappointing deflation. Oh well.

**

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015)

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A real kick in the mouth, considering every film of Ben Wheatley’s up to this, High-Rise, alongside such examples as The Cell, Stoker and Lost River stands as testament to the unforgiving reality that it really doesn’t matter how much style you throw at something, if you don’t have the substance to back it up. Though I haven’t seen them, the glossy sci-fi setting and reliance on stars suggests High-Rise may in fact share considerably more in common with the Doctor Who episodes Wheatley directed than any of his prior films, which would partially explain my utter dislike of this film, in contrast both to my feelings about his oeuvre as a whole, and the grand majority of audiences.

In interviews for previous films such as Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley has always made clear that he likes all his characters, despite the horrible things they may do, and speaks with a paternal generosity that feels entirely fitting – none of his previous films have been without pathos, without a vested interest in seeing his protagonists develop, even from bad to worse; High-Rise, to put it simply, doesn’t. It’s ironic that the one film of his that is a veritable social satire displays the least interest in breaking through any character’s archetypal shell. Thus, there isn’t nearly enough groundwork laid in the first act to leave much room for shock, or even surprise, when everyone starts going berserk – the loss of humanity to primal rage and survivalism can only make an impression when there was a minimum amount of humanity to lose.

Sure, High-Rise is “nasty,” but only really on a surface level – any film that involves murder, violent rape, enslavement of a pregnant woman, and the eating of a dog is going to make you shift in your seat – but the film’s alignment with protagonist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston)’s constant state of ironic self-detachment at it all doesn’t reinforce the cruelty of the events so much as combine with the tiresomely “stylish” presentation to permeate the film with an atmosphere of smugness.

I so, so hope that Wheatley is essentially never given this amount of money or the desire to adapt a book again – it’s clearly bad for him, and really disappointing to me.

 

**

Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2015)

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Watching Lost River, I couldn’t help but get an eerie feeling of déja-vu. After half an hour or so, I realised that it’s more or less one of the film scripts I wrote in my bedroom at age 14 up till the moment where my laptop had the good sense to die forever, depriving the world of more derivative, albeit aesthetically harmonious, twaddle.

It is instantly apparent that each and every one of the characters are entirely picked from a deck of instantly recognisable archetypes but, strangely enough, not a one of them is fleshed out enough even to fulfil the required tropes. Granted, for this it makes the characters less obnoxious than the overbearingly paint-by-numbers archetype list to be found in so many films from Birdman to Calvary, but that’s but there is more than one alternative to glitzy 2D character writing that isn’t frustratingly 1D character writing. Lost River‘s aimless approach to in media res means that we’re never really given insight into any motivations, allegiances or conflicts, and the nearly-last-days universe, for all its neon cool, just isn’t interesting enough forLost River‘s lack of tight plot to be made irrelevant by immersive experience, à la Hard to Be a God.

To be sure, I have occasionally wondered what Ryan Gosling’s blu-ray collection looked like, and I’m glad to have Lost River take me from J through M (Jodorowsky, Korine, Lynch, Mallick) as well as confirm for me that he’s seen and enjoyed Stalker at least once, but I cannot help but resent him for recycling these auteurs in such a dull, privileged way. I say privileged, because there are films that have managed to borrow unmistakable elements from, say, Lynch on what seems to have been a fraction of this film’s budget and make a simple, pleasant watch. Enemy is a fine example of such a film. Lost River, by contrast, feels simultaneously somehow too simple and too complex at the same time, Gosling never quite sure what point he wants to make, but never having the nihilism of the majority of his considerably more existential influences to allow it to have no point with dignity.

It’s heartbreaking to think Gosling believed he was making something good and new with Lost River and it’s sickening to think some stupid teenager will honestly believe this is the peak of filmmaking. I certainly hope they discover the source texts for every rip-off in this film and realise how much more there is to explore than Lost River.

**

Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay (Amélie Ravalec, 2015)

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I was really looking forward to this. The title suggested that I was going to be in for some psychogeographical complement between the sounds of the industrial scene and Herzogian documentary-style footage of estates and ghostly urban sprawl, like a contemporary reimagining of Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halbe Mensch” and instead I watched a surface-level talking head fest with less information than BBC Four’s 2009 program Synth Britannia.

Covering almost exclusively the mot accessible and synthpoppy elements of Industrial, with massive gaping holes as far as artists like Nurse With Wound, Coil, Whitehouse and Merzbow are concerned, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decayteaches you nothing new, but at least seeing it at the cinema gives you the opportunity to hear some Throbbing Gristle and SPK played on louder speakers than you probably own at home. This fact becomes all too abundant, however, thanks to the shoddy mixing job and poor quality of the sound recording equipment, resulting in many of the interviews getting drowned out by music many of us have heard before.

However, given that the interviews are nothing but musicians making incredibly bold Great Man Theory statements, all claiming to be the first musicians of discord, first practitioners of sampling techniques, selectively forgetting futurism, free jazz and musique concrète as just three examples, we aren’t missing all that much.

At 52 minutes, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay is a short, pretentious and dramatically wanting affair, salvaged only somewhat by the quality of its primary source material, which will itself be entirely familiar to a solid 90% of its audience anyway.

**

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014)

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Sure, just like everyone else in the world, Maps to the Stars did indeed make me think about Mulholland Drive. In particular, it made me think just how much I wish I were watching Mulholland Drive instead.

I swear, for all Cronenberg’s auteurism, he flat out forgets to direct the actors, time and time again; they always seem to be set in neutral, announcing their personality traits and current emotions to one another without any subtlety beyond the pure monotony of their timbre.

It interests me that, aside from the desperately obvious “Hey, has anyone noticed how Hollywood kinda runs on psychopathy? Maybe there’s a movie in it” narrative cliché, the other two connections that I made throughout were Savage Grace and Stoker, reasonable connections to make as they stared Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska respectively, were both about incest and murder, both with performances one would generously describe as “laconic,” and were both duller than ditchwater.

Sure, most of the actors are perfectly fine, some are actually very good, but they are constantly let down by a painfully unimaginative script and are left totally at sea by Cronenberg’s complete absence of direction.

**

Filth (Jon S. Baird, 2013)

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If you loved Bad Lieutenant, Trainspotting, The Libertine and Training Day, you’ll be… really kinda bored by Filth.

For a film that covers some of the most covered territory there is for a film cover, Filthcomes across as desperately pleased with itself, which – rather than the, frankly run of the mill “grittiness” – is the thing that actually makes this film so hard to like. The ending is decent but in its attempt to mix grungy bleak humour with pathos as is Irvine Welsh’s wont, Filth ends up somewhat undermining both. Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan are delightful to watch as ever and it’s nice to see Jim Broadbent in full Terry Gilliam mode but again: there’s nothing new going on here. James McAvoy plays the lead Bruce Robertson admirably, but he’s no Harvey Keitel; he’s not really Nicolas Cage.

The strongest element of Filth, however, is without a doubt Bruce’s ladder-climbing duplicity, saving the film by dragging it out of “British Bad Lieutenant” territory and into “Edinburgh House of Cards.” Even so, Bruce’s constant cheeky winks towards the permeable fourth wall soon get grating and, much like the film itself, lose all impressiveness quite rapidly. Fairly fun, but has little-to-no replay value in comparison to the list of far superior predecessors upon which it is so obviously based.

 

**