SUICIDE SQUAD movie review

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Credit where credit is due: Suicide Squad had hands down the best marketing campaign of the summer.

The marketing team over at Warner Bros. did an excellent job of whetting appetites with a constant stream of hype. Every week we were treated to a new mashup of footage highlighting the film’s flashy, chaotic vibe and colorful characters, set to a growing collection of wild pop songs. It no doubt helped earn the film its massive opening weekend.

It should soften the blow then to know that Suicide Squad the film is more marketing than movie (“twisted and evil …”).

Director/writer David Ayer’s take on DC’s supervillain team of expendables is uncomfortably similar to its trailers in that it also often acts as a handful of disjointed scenes stitched together, hinting at meaning and connectivity.

It’s flashy and chaotic without the substance to back it up, characters are introduced more often then they are developed and sweet Reekris the onslaught of obvious pop songs …

And like a product of good marketing, Suicide Squad has one bright spot in its tangled, neon web in that you want to see these characters again, albeit in a better movie. A much better movie.

The DC Extended Universe’s third feature is written with all the wit of a middle school bro party and the plotting of a script put together at breakneck speed (six weeks, reportedly).

Whatever gets it out there in time for the release date.

There are plenty of opportunities to go for the harder edge that the material screams out for, but the film is a complete casualty of the studio’s shell shock from the criticism Batman v Superman got for being “too dark.”

The violence is plentiful but bloodless and material deemed too thematically dark seems to have been skipped completely. Yet somehow the filmmakers kept a handful of scenes of women being brutalized and played them up for laughs in an offhanded way. Very cute.

Whatever lets the kids see the movie (and possibly get the message that it’s funny when women get hit).

Ayer has Steven Price at his beck and call to make the music of Suicide Squad. The “won an Oscar for Gravity” Steven Price. Instead, he’s pushed aside (while delivering a mostly routine score) in favor of a horde of no less than 20 on-the-nose pop songs, sometimes one after the other, in the beginning half. At best, it’s excessive; at worst, it keeps the movie nice and fragmented, never finding a good rhythm.

Whatever sells more albums.

Characters saunter about with street-wise ‘tude and are given ham-fisted badass moments but rarely say or do anything that resonates outside of their overdone costumes.

Whatever floods the Halloween market.

The script may fail them time and time again but the cast is the most redeemable part of the movie.

Will Smith as Deadshot is serviceable. You expect him to shoot people and crack wise; he shoots people and cracks wise. Viola Davis stays true to the ruthlessness of Amanda Waller.  Jay Hernandez has a borderline good arc as the repentant pyro Diablo. Jai Courtney is amusing as Boomerang and Lost’s Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje looks terrific as a practical Killer Croc.

The shining star of the film is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. There are several questionable aspects in how the character is approached storywise but Robbie’s take is rock solid, expressing the humor and unpredictability HQ is known for in a fresh way for her big screen debut.

I also hear The Joker is in the film. I’ll let you know if I remember seeing him because, despite a committed and unhinged performance from Jared Leto, The Joker is given so little to do he may as well be any random eccentric gang member. He serves no purpose in this film and is in it so briefly there’s no point where it’s established what exactly this new Joker is.

And this is a far too common problem with most of the film’s characters. It’s cool to see Killer Croc, Boomerang and Katana on the big screen but we gloss right over their backstories and reasons they are on the team for the sake of action.

Rick Flagg is at his most interesting when he’s interacting with the team and not when we’re focusing on his tacked-on love story with the Enchantress, one of the most cliche and undefined villains in a genre where the bar is already set low for weak villains.

In a movie full of bad guys, it feels like the story probably would have gone smoother without the main antagonist there at all.

The botching of the villains is disappointing if not a bit expected. The mishandling of the Harley/Joker romance is what’s borderline insulting. Ayer and his team do a great disservice to the characters by cutting out every bit of material between the two that might be seen as abusive.

Here, it’s all smiles and roses and consensual acid baths.

It’s a choice that’s more agreeable on paper but it takes away The Joker’s menace and makes Harley less complicated and more dependent. The core of that relationship hinges on Harley being stuck with The Joker, in spite of how awfully he treats her, because she’s wild about him. To ignore that middle part is to ignore a terrific opportunity for Harley to empower herself by getting away from her tormentor and being her own person.

Whatever offends the least and sells more.

Shoutsma Says:

As someone who has gone to bat several times for Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, even I find no real way to defend Suicide Squad. Its dialogue is awful, it underutilizes its characters, its music choices reek of desperation and it has no flow or excitement left after seemingly being edited by a garbage disposal.

It’s a testament to the actors that you still want to see them revisit these characters. Knock on wood, it will be in a film that’s more interested in telling a satisfying story than selling us stuff. One that won’t be the most disappointing film of the season.

3/10

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BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE movie review

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There’s no arguing that Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the defining graphic novels in the history of Batman in how it has shaped our modern perception of the Dark Knight’s ultimate enemy, The Joker. (I know there are some of you out there who would argue this. Don’t.)

Guided by Moore’s sophisticated writing, The Killing Joke first tried to establish a definitive backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime and took readers on a deeply upsetting journey through the dichotomy of good and evil, and the fragility of sanity after “one bad day.”

But for all the story’s wonderful things, parts of The Killing Joke have not aged gracefully since its 1988 debut. In particular, the treatment of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is still highly controversial and has become a prime example of how not to utilize women in a then mostly male-oriented medium (translation: It’s kind of insulting to have them show up just to be crippled and violated).

28 years after it was released, Warner Bros Animation finally gave the green light for an adaptation they promised would stay true to the mature content of the original.

If this adaptation teaches us anything, it’s that maybe the classics should be left alone and that trying to fix the mistakes of the past can somehow make them seem worse.

First, the good. Batman: The Killing Joke comes to us from the producers of Batman: The Animated Series, aka still probably the greatest Batman thing ever. That means that not only do we have legends like Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett behind the camera, but we also are treated to return performances from voice veterans Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong and, of course, Mark Hamill.

In some ways this film version is a treat enough just to hear the likes of Hamill and Conroy recite Moore’s classic lines. As this is the definitive Joker story, it’s no surprise the Hamill turns in one of his best performances as The Joker. It’s a different, darker reflection of the character but it’s one that can still illicit goosebumps in several moments.

It’s clear every actor involved wanted to be part of this classic story and they all deliver.

On paper, a BTAS-backed Killing Joke adaptation would be an instant win. What makes it anything but is how the material is handled.

Batman: The Killing Joke isn’t one movie, it’s two. There is the classic Joker story that everyone has been pumped to see — which is interesting enough in its own right — and the extended prologue the filmmakers put in before it.

One drags down the other.

No doubt aware of the controversy surrounding the story, the filmmakers have added an additional 30-some minutes of new material to the film that chronicles the adventures of Batgirl prior to her horrible tragedy.

It’s admirable to try and make Barbara more of an element in a story known for minimizing her but the decisions here are completely misguided.

The opening half of this movie in no way blends with the main story, is not captivating and, contrary to what was intended, only highlights how unessential her involvement in the story truly is.

At its dark heart, this is the Joker’s story and had the opening tied in on that in some way, it would have been understandable. It doesn’t and instead plays like an extended apology for a touchy subject rather than a timely update.

Was it necessary? Maybe in some other place but not in this movie, especially when you’re still intent on keeping the source material’s gross ending where Batman and The Joker share a hearty laugh while Barbara lies paralyzed in a hospital bed.

 Shoutsma Says:

The original Killing Joke graphic novel is great, flaws and all. This adaptation, when it works, captures some of that same demented spirit. But it made the major mistake of adding material that was not even comparable (or complimentary) to the original, which makes for a forgettable companion piece that often falls flat.

4/10

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE movie review

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — the jumping point for DC’s shared film universe — was mired in negativity from day one. From casting backlash to flat-out hatred for the director, “fans” and film writers never held back in sharing their gripes towards with film before its release, creating an atmosphere of vitriol and frustration from the start.

The critical lashing the film took, in addition to its swift drop in the box office roster, can certainly be attributed to some concentrated disdain beforehand, but what about the film on its own (he says after spending two paragraphs talking about peripheral aspects of the movie instead of the movie itself)?

In an effort to break away from the same approach Marvel took in adapting its shared universe, DC and Zack Snyder chose to forgo a handful of set-up films and instead get to the juicy part where the universe’s heroes meet and worlds expand.

The result is a film that both revels in the glory of seeing these classic heroes on screen together, and suffers from one of the headliners being shortchanged in a film that works better as world expansion than as a concise, even story.

It’s not rare for an action blockbuster to end up running well over two hours, but when your writer hands in a script that’s equivalent to a four-hour cut, it might be time to pump the brakes. Batman v Superman is jam-packed with material — not all of which jives — and ends up being a movie that’s more a sum of its parts.

While the visuals, score, mature themes, new characters and a certain gonzo performance all should be praised, the lynchpin of the movie is absolutely Ben Affleck’s Batman. Brutal, imposing and complex, Batfleck is the most rock steady aspect of the film. Owing much of the interpretation to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman v Superman delivers what may be the definitive live action Batman/Bruce Wayne performance — an aspect that gives not only hope, but excitement at the thought of his continued presence in this universe.

And the other guy? After this film he might be in need of a course correction. Superman’s depiction in Man of Steel was refreshing: a conflicted savior figure trying to find his place in this world. Here, he’s just kind of … there, while everyone reacts to his presence. This really is more of a Batman movie than anything.

While there’s certainly a notable event that happens to the character here, Batman v Superman feels like a missed opportunity for Superman to evolve into a richer character, whereas he instead seems intent here to out-gloom Batman.

Speaking of gloom, let’s talk tone. Batman v Superman is dark. Like “why are children in this theater?” dark. Manslaughter, destruction, suicide bombs, philosophical discussions on religion and power — it’s heavy stuff.

That’s legitimately a great thing.

Superhero movies are allowed to explore more weighty concepts and should be encouraged to do so. That doesn’t make the movie “no fun,” unless you’ve been conditioned by a constant stream of comic book movies that abandon dramatic heft.

What’s understandably more divisive is the handling of the material. Snyder is not one for subtlety and Batman v Superman approaches the story with aggressive bravado. But the movie’s immense scope and serious attitude aren’t unwarranted. These are two of our most iconic figures in culture meeting on screen; this is like a modern-day opera with all the high emotions and sound and fury that can be mustered.

What can actually be integrated in the universe’s approach going forward is the concept of “dark, not mean.” Snyder seems to revel a little too much in pushing heroes towards non-heroic acts (not to mention just general cruelty) in a way that doesn’t seem genuine to the world.

We see the characters here at low points — Batman growing more vicious in his crusade from loss and Superman embattled on all sides for trying to do what he feels is the right thing — but don’t get the sense that they’ve entirely set themselves on a more righteous track by the end.

Woman Woman, meanwhile, doesn’t need any adjustment because everything is great with her. The set-up for a solo film looks promising, even if her introduction is all part of the studio’s grand universe-building plan.

A little less clear is how Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor will factor moving forward, as the actor’s fresh take on the character was an odd, sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing change of pace from the darkness of the rest of the movie.

While the concept of moving forward in a franchise shouldn’t be the main thing to talk about for a film itself, that’s kind of the point with Batman v Superman.

Essentially a set-up for bigger things to come, Batman v Superman squanders some of its potential as a great stand-alone film but makes up for it with strong internal elements that are at least thought-provoking, and at most engaging that should continue to pay off.

After all, it’s a franchise world and we’re just living in it.

7/10

 

BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT VIDEO GAME REVIEW

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Some people say video games aren’t art. They say complex human emotions, narratives, morals and themes can’t be conveyed through the interactive game format.

At least, there was that sentiment several years ago when video games were relatively new; these days… not so much. However, for any holdouts left, allow me humbly point out Batman: Arkham Knight, a spectacular example of playability and storytelling combined to create a breathtaking Batman experience that matches the greats, regardless of medium.

It’s been 9 months since the horrors of Arkham City and Gotham is experiencing a rare time of peace. That peace comes to a screaming halt after the Scarecrow threatens the city with a apocalyptic amount of his latest fear toxin. Out for revenge after Arkham Asylum, Scarecrow has resurged with alarming force, thanks to his partnership with the mysterious militia commander, the Arkham Knight. Against overwhelming resistance, Batman must face both his greatest foes and fears to emerge triumphant as Gotham’s savior.

But will it be his final hour?

Arkham Knight follows two game-changing titles — Asylum and City (not as much for Origins) — and sticks the landing to make for a terrific conclusion to the series. Not many doubted developer Rocksteady’s ability to deliver another great Batman game, and they, in turn, delivered another deeply layered, highly detailed, amazingly playable entry in their impressive catalogue.

It is both a blessing and a curse to say that I have been devoting a vast majority of my free time over the past month to completing as much as I can of this behemoth; there’s just that much to do! Completing the epic main storyline only accounts for about nine hours of gameplay, a fraction of what is all there. Between rescuing missing firefighters, solving the mysteries of gruesome murders and mysterious monster sightings, stopping Two-Face and Penguin and tracking down those pesky Riddler trophies, there is never not enough to do in Arkham Knight. Rocksteady has made this game worth every last penny.

The increased time it takes to beat this game can also be attributed to the level of difficulty. As the last of the series, Arkham Knight ramps up the difficulty, making fights more varied, predator missions trickier and puzzles more head-scratching. It can, admittedly, be a little frustrating to get hung up on a challenge when all you want to do is continue on, but the added difficulty makes the experience all the more rewarding.

The major addition to the gameplay this time around, besides the little fact that the Gotham City map is three times the size of Arkham City (and lightyears more developed than the one in Origins), is the Batmobile. Players not only are given a Batman at his peak, but are given access to a whole new gameplay dynamic with the car. From the get-go, players are taught to rely on the Batmobile, as it comes into play for a majority of the game.

Vehicle sequences, including chasing down militia caravans, engaging in tank warfare with the Arkham Knight’s drones and racing on the Riddler’s race courses, are definitely fun and unique. The problem comes from how over-reliant the game is on them. So often it feels like the tank battles are just obstacles the developer throws in to pad the game, while the main story provides too many instances where you are dependent on the car to bail you out of tough spots.

“Wait, couldn’t I have just ‘Batman’d’ myself out of this situation in previous games?,” I thought more than once while playing.

Still, if there’s going to be anything wrong with a game like this, it’s preferable that there’s too much of a good thing.

Yet, going even further, I oftentimes found myself wanting less gameplay in general. Not because it was, in any way, bad; because the story of this game is so damn engaging. Once again we have a plot that essentially puts Batman at the end of his crusade and asks how Gotham could survive without Batman. Better yet, it tests him like never before by mixing in consequences from his past and present that come back to haunt him and gives him an internal struggle with his self control that is beautifully realized through the appearance of a surprise figure. Geoff Johns’ writing for this entry is a real asset to the game, in that it makes you want to watch a cutscene as much as beat up some thugs.

Much has been made of the plot point of the Arkham Knight himself. I certainly understand the deception that was at play with the character (think Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness) but the inclusion of this new foe largely works in favor of the story, minus the overwhelming feeling that they named him the Arkham Knight just to nail down a title that was consistent with the rest. What doesn’t work is everything after the Knight’s identity is revealed, as he is essentially shuffled off with no followup.

While one antagonist left a little to be desired, it was Scarecrow who t took the cake from the beginning, receiving another ghastly redesign and a stronger presence to great effect. Yes, I wish they would find a deeper motivation for him beyond “He wants to cause fear because HE’S EVIL,” but the design, writing and vocal performance by John Noble is so irresistible that it’s hard not to see this iteration as the best Scarecrow representation in media yet.

Like the previous entries, Arkham Knight has its little things to pick at, but like those games, I hardly think those things will be what we remember in the coming years. The fact that this piece of software has acted as a complete narcotic for several weeks on end is either a frightening realization of this writer’s priorities or the hallmark of excellent craftsmanship.

I prefer to think the latter but feel free to congratulate me on my Arkham-free way of living next time you see me. Hopefully I’ll have given it up by then.

8.8/10