REVIEW: Suicide Squad

2 08 2016

At the time of this review’s publication, there are a whopping seven untitled DC Comics films with dates on the calendar but no titles announced. It seems likely that at least one, if not more, of those slots will be filled by a character from “Suicide Squad.” The latest ten-car-pileup from the comic book studio plays like an extended audition for a standalone film. Individual characters distinguish themselves, sure, but they do so by essentially acting in little regard to the plot and tone around them.

This is the most obvious with the film’s resident crazies, Jared Leto’s The Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The former, never quite fully breaking from the iconic Heath Ledger performance, feels like he waltzed his way out of a Miley Cyrus video. The latter, a rainbow bomb-pop comes to life, breaks free to some extent and makes for raucous fun. But most of Harley’s shining moments come in cutaways or disruptive asides. Robbie does not feed off the energy in the scene; she mostly just crushes the line she’s been given.

All the internal one-upmanship feels oddly fitting for a film whose sole purpose appears to be one-upping Marvel. “Suicide Squad” feels like the inevitable byproduct of a DC boardroom who decided to blend their favorite parts of unlikely smash hits “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” which they then serve in a neon-lit package. The film has smart-mouthed, villainous protagonists who form an unlikely coalition to save the world, and their romp is set to a Spotify playlist of frequently used trailer songs. (The fact that “Spirit in the Sky” made it onto the soundtrack is as plagiaristic as Melania Trump’s RNC speech.)

“Suicide Squad” is an emblematic film for the kind of products made by committees and algorithms as opposed to champions of artists. DC and Warner Bros. know what has worked for these types of films in the past, and they are not necessarily wrong to assume that audiences want something like it. Indeed, “Suicide Squad” works in fits and spurts where writer/director David Ayer’s dark comedic or war battle sensibilities can come through. But more often than not, he is forced to do too much in too little time. And a good chunk of that overextension does not make it the kind of movie that another corporate committee will try to emulate in a year or two. C+2stars

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REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club

24 08 2014

It’s tempting to look at the flashy physical transformations of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club” and assume that the film’s allure lies solely on the surface.  (Not helping matters were the heaps of attention and awards for the actors while the below-the-line talent went virtually unrecognized.)  Director Jean-Marc Vallée actually does deliver a film, however, with a surprisingly deep amount of care in its crafting.

We first meet McConaughey’s tough-talking Texas cowboy Ron Woodruff as he womanizes, a scene which feels all too typical.  Yet pay attention to the way the sequence is spliced together, both visually and aurally, and you may notice how simply and effectively Vallée foreshadows Woodruff’s impending HIV diagnosis.  These flourishes, subtle as they may be, go a long way to prevent “Dallas Buyers Club” from hokey Oscar bait.

Flashy though their work may be, the beauty of McConaughey and Leto’s performances also comes from these smaller moments.  While it’s easy to marvel about how gaunt Leto appears or how seamlessly he disappears into AIDS-stricken trans woman Rayon, he’s at his most impactful when breaking down in tears over fretting imminent death.  The same goes for McConaughey, who gets to slowly peel away layers of calloused toughness to reveal humanity and empathy.

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OSCAR MOMENT: Final 2013 Predictions! (Part 1)

14 01 2014

Well, folks, hard to believe that we’ll have a fresh batch of Oscar nominations in less than 2 days. Where has the time gone? Seems like just yesterday that I was posting my first (and, sadly, my only) predictions that included Naomi Watts in the thick of the Best Actress race for “Diana.” But now that all the ballots are in, the jury is still out on how a few of the races will go.

Who is about to have a great wake-up call on Thursday? I sort through the acting races races below.

BEST ACTOR

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street

Bale HustleThe top 3 seem pretty secure to me.  There’s a slim chance of Hanks falling out simply because this isn’t his first rodeo and voters might want to give their vote to a fresher face.  But aside from frontrunners McConaughey and Ejiofor, very few of the top nominees are new to the game.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” both gave great breakout performances.  Maybe in a less competitive year, they’d have broken through.  In 2013, I’d be shocked if they could crack this field.  It doesn’t help that neither movie seemed to gain much traction during precursor season.  Past winner Forest Whitaker for “The Butler” and past nominee Robert Redford for “All Is Lost” seem unlikely as well as both of their movies have not been heavily recognized on the circuit.

Christian Bale stands a chance of showing up here, especially after netting nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and BAFTA awards for his electric work in “American Hustle.”  He’s won once off his only nomination, which feels like a huge injustice for his vast talents.  If there’s enough love for the movie, he could land a spot.  But losing at the Globes, which clearly loved “American Hustle,” indicates that love for his performance may be wide but not very deep.

Bruce Dern has campaigned his tail off for “Nebraska,” and it’s clear that he really wants to win.  The film has found plenty of fans, and it’s hard to see him missing out since he’s responsible for so much of its efficacy.  He’s been nominated by the triple crown of SAG, HFPA (Golden Globes), and BFCA (Critics’ Choice), yet that’s no assurance of an Oscar nomination these days.  It’s not shocking that he didn’t win the Golden Globe since the organization probably wanted the ultra-wattage of Leonardo DiCaprio up on stage.  The Academy goes back-and-forth on being sentimental for veterans of the craft; I don’t think they’ll be able to resist at least a nomination for Dern though.

Leo Wolf

Upon its release, I would have counted Leonardo DiCaprio out of the race for Best Actor.  But he’s been more active than ever speaking up for his movie, and it really pushed “The Wolf of Wall Street” into the conversation.  The late surge of momentum may not be enough to counter his omission from both SAG and BFCA – DiCaprio netted the precursor triple crown for “J. Edgar” but still found no love from the Academy in 2011.  The Globe win, however, gives me the sense that he’ll slide into a nomination.

It would be his first since “Blood Diamond” in 2006 … since then, he’s starred in “Revolutionary Road,” “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” “Django Unchained,” and “The Great Gatsby.”  This might very well be a nomination rewarding that whole string of excellent performances.

BEST ACTRESS

  1. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine
  2. Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  3. Judi Dench, “Philomena
  4. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks
  5. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

MerylBlanchett has this all but sealed up now.  It would take a major blunder on-stage for her to lose Best Actress at this point, but we all know that’s not going to happen.  It’s Cate Blanchett – she’s about the classiest actress around.

Bullock, Dench, and Thompson should all coast right in with no problem.  All 3 prior winners have been nominated by SAG, HFPA, and BFCA, and their films all have a sizable base of fans to pull them through.

The last bit of suspense in this category will come on nominations morning as we wait to see if it’s Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County” or Amy Adams for “American Hustle.”  Streep’s case is … well, she’s Meryl Streep.  The Oscars rarely pass up an opportunity to nominate her, but maybe the reflex will not be as strong now that she’s won the third Oscar for “The Iron Lady” two years ago.  She’s hit all the big precursors so far, scoring all the same major nominations as the previously mentioned actresses.  Her film, though, has not been particularly well-received.

Adams HustleAmy Adams is an Academy favorite herself though, racking up an impressive four Best Supporting Actress nominations in the past nine years.  She’s never been recognized as a leading lady, and a nomination here would send the message, “We’re working on getting you that Oscar win one day, Amy, we promise!”  Though she did not land a SAG nomination, she’s been recognized by the BFCA and BAFTA.  Moreover, she beat Meryl Streep for Best Actress at the Golden Globes.

It’s unclear if the Academy will love “American Hustle” as much as the HFPA did.  I feel pretty confident, though, that respect for Adams and the film she commands will overpower the impulse to give Streep her bazillionth nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  1. Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  5. Daniel Brühl, “Rush

AbdiWhile I remain hopeful that Fassbender can pull an upset, this category looks to be all Jared Leto.  He’s been taking everything in his path, and I don’t think that will stop until the Oscar.  For Fassbender, though, he should at least take solace in getting his first nomination without campaigning a bit.  (If he had to work so hard only to be denied recognition for his astounding work in “Shame,” then why bother lobbying anymore?)

Debut performances often fare well at the Oscars, especially in the supporting categories.  22 have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I suspect that number will rise to 23 this week.  Barkhad Abdi’s first role ever as the lead Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips” has been highly praised and won him recogition from SAG, HFPA, BFCA, and BAFTA.  Especially given the praise that his film has received, I think a snub would be rather inconceivable at this point.

Though he wasn’t nominated by SAG, Bradley Cooper has collected every other key nomination for his work in “American Hustle.”  The film is beloved, and his performance is one of the best parts of the movie – hilarious but also heartily dramatic.  Two years ago, back-to-back Oscar nominations for the guy who was a staple of rom-coms like “Valentine’s Day” might have seemed an absurdity.  Now I see it as a practical inevitability.

Cooper HuslteCooper was passed over by SAG in favor of a posthumous recognition for James Gandolfini in “Enough Said.”  While he was certainly a beloved actor, Gandolfini was more revered for his television work than his film roles.  (“Killing Them Softly” was fantastic, just going to point out once again.)  The SAG nomination committee has plenty of television actors, and that may have accounted for his appearance.  Otherwise, he’s been spotty, picking up a nod from BFCA but not from the HFPA.  “Enough Said” really hasn’t been a big part of the Oscar conversation, and I think that will ultimately cost Gandolfini a slot in this line-up.

The final slot is likely to go to Daniel Bruhl, who I really shouldn’t be doubting as he’s racked up nominations from all significant precursors.  But aside from the Golden Globe Best Picture nomination for “Rush,” the film hasn’t really been lighting up awards season.  Bruhl’s work is solid but seems to draw no fervent support.  I could see him losing a spot to Gandolfini or even a left-field player like Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr. Banks” or Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  In my wildest dreams, James Franco’s brilliant work in “Spring Breakers” could trump Bruhl.  But I have to predict what seems predictable.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  1. Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  3. June Squibb, “Nebraska”
  4. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler
  5. Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”

Nyong'oIt’s down to Nyong’o vs. Lawrence for the win here.  Though Lawrence prevailed at the star-powered Golden Globes, I still have my doubts as to whether she can swing back-to-back Oscar wins.  I think this category could also be a way for us to gauge on Oscar night which film will win Best Picture.  Both films are likely to need one acting victory, and Best Supporting Actress is the most probable place to earn it.  (Ejiofor has a shot for Best Actor, and that might pan out for the film.)

I think 84-year-old June Squibb is pretty much locked in for her fantastic performance in “Nebraska.”  She’s had all the requisite nominations leading up to the Oscars, and her film is well-liked too.

The last two slots, however, could go any number of ways.  Sally Hawkins got a Golden Globe nomination for “Blue Jasmine,” and the British contingency that got her a BAFTA nod could break her into the field here.  I have to wonder if “Blue Jasmine” is purely the Cate Blanchett show, however.  Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work in “Her” got her a nomination from the BFCA (it was ineligible at the Globes), but the Academy generally strays away from rewarding unconventional performances like that.  Maybe Sarah Paulson, silent on the trail so far, could shock and give “12 Years a Slave” its second nomination in the category.

RobertsMy guess is that the Academy will stick to some long renowned actresses to fill out the roster.  Oprah Winfrey surprisingly missed with the Golden Globes for “The Butler,” but she’s been touted by the BFCA, SAG, and BAFTA.  Even though the film has lost its buzz after it scored surprisingly well with the SAG, I think the Oscars will still want to give something to one of the few screen performances given by the cultural icon.

I think they’ll also be welcoming back Julia Roberts, who hasn’t been nominated since she won in 2000 for “Erin Brockovich.”  As previously mentioned, “August: Osage County” hasn’t been met with rapturous acclaim.  But it does have the support of the actors, who gave it a coveted Best Ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards.  If anything for the film is recognized, it will be the acting.  And Roberts, who many view as a co-lead, is the most likely to reap the goodwill.

Check back tomorrow to see my predictions for the writing/directing categories as well as the granddaddy of them all … BEST PICTURE!





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 11, 2010)

11 06 2010

They don’t make movies this powerful and impacting very often.  That’s why “Requiem for a Dream,” an stylistic masterpiece by Darren Aronofsky, is the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  I thought I couldn’t be scared by movies after having made it through several horror movies barely flinching.  Yet along came “Requiem for a Dream,” and unexpectedly, I was screaming, shouting, and cowering in fear.

The movie follows four people over nine months as drug abuse affects their lives in profound ways.  It’s a somewhat typical addiction story for Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and Tyrone Love (Marlon Wayans) who are trying to earn enough money dealing drugs to open up a fashion shop for Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly).  But due to various unfortunate incidents, they end up having to go deeper into the drug trade to dig themselves out of a hole.  Meanwhile, Marion has also fallen into a state of desperation to keep up their lifestyle of recreational drug use.

But easily the most powerful and heartbreaking storyline of “Requiem for a Dream” is that of Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), Harry’s mother.  A New Jersey widow who has confined herself to her tiny apartment, Sara becomes convinced that she has been selected to appear on her favorite infomercial after a fake phone call.  Trying to make herself look attractive for a television audience, she visits an underground doctor to obtain pills that will help her take off some weight quickly.  She gets what she wants out of the pills but winds up addicted.  It’s tragic to watch the doctor turn a blind eye to her issues when she comes in, clearly unable to address her own problems.  Because she didn’t intend for this to happen, it’s her unconventional addiction story that really captures our sympathy.  We leave all four of them in a state of misery that no human being should ever have to endure.  It is chillingly devastating to watch their lives spiral out of control, and even more so once we reach the unsparing conclusion.

There’s no way to talk about the movie without talking about the incredible acting, particularly Ellen Burstyn.  A role like Sara is risky for someone of her age and stature, and she went all-in.  The result is one of the most powerful performances of the decade, one that should have won her an Oscar.  Jared Leto is scary good as her son, Jennifer Connelly takes her character to the edge just one year removed from winning her own Oscar, and Marlon Wayans isn’t bad!

The tension in the movie is amplified by Clint Mansell’s absolutely terrifying score.  Usually, a film’s score is gravy in a best-case scenario or a distraction in a worst-case scenario.  But “Requiem for a Dream” incorporates Mansell’s music into the very fabric of the movie, making it that much more effective.  The main theme from the movie has become a cult hit, but it’s “Meltdown,” the song that plays during the climactic moments of the movie, that deserves to be worshipped.

But “Requiem for a Dream” really works because of the incredible vision Darren Aronofsky has for it.  He makes addiction real for us and gets us into the minds of the addicts themselves.  It’s the split-screen, the close-ups, and the time lapse sequences.  It’s the quick cuts, the repetitive sequences when drugs are used, and the increased speed whenever the addiction accelerates.  Most of all, though, it’s his willingness to give us the truth about addiction and his unflinching drive to take us where few movies can.  The whole movie exudes his confidence in his vision, and his style leads us exactly where he wants to take us.

Really, if you ever want to scare someone out of doing drugs, you should show them this movie.  There’s no one on this planet who could watch this movie and then want to go do hard drugs.  Heck, it could scare the average person out of taking a pill.  So by all means, if you think you can handle it, I strongly recommend “Requiem for a Dream.”