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: Concussion

21 12 2015

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is barely good enough to avoid a pun about the film causing its own kind of head trauma. It is not successful enough, however, to avoid one about the film’s facts and message hitting with unnecessarily blunt force.

Even though the message of this sports-related film rings depressing (rather than the usual uplift), “Concussion” can not avoid the temptations of the genre’s heavy-handed filmmaking. Like many a tale of this ilk, the film features an unlikely protagonist who must persevere against intense obstacles and opposition. Here, that person is not a player but a doctor, Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian immigrant, perhaps more educated than an average bucket full of American citizens, lets his intellectual curiosity lead him to the discovery of a particular brain condition endemic to one group of men: ex-football players.

When Omalu breaks it down in the parlance that comes most naturally to him – science – the issue proves quite captivating. Framing the game of football as a series of shocks that the human body was not built to absorb makes his case strong. But when “Concussion” frames his struggle as one against a shadowy, monolithically evil NFL, the film falls completely flat. The silencing by commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league probably happened, if I had to conjecture based on Goodell’s rather reckless actions over the past few seasons. Yet even as someone staunchly opposed to the league’s head honcho, the film comes off like a half-baked, crackpot conspiracy theory.

When a two-dimensional character goes up against a one-dimensional enemy, no one wins. Not the film. Not the issue. And certainly not the audience. C+2stars





REVIEW: Focus

24 08 2015

When I was in middle school, Will Smith was the man.  Any conversation about movies seemed to inevitably drift towards his spotless record (most of us were too young to remember 1999’s “Wild Wild West”) at the box office and in quality.  His named practically guaranteed a fun ride.

Fast forward to today, where Smith is no longer the summer staple or inherently bankable star he once was.  Since 2008, he has only three non-cameo film roles: “Men in Black III” (admittedly, not terrible), “After Earth” (which I dutifully avoided like the plague), and now, “Focus.”  For someone who so seldom works these days, it seems unfathomable that this was the best Will Smith could do for a rare starring vehicle.

Writer/director duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s conman film has so little taste and flavor that it really needed Smith to bring his A-game.  But never has he appeared so off his game.  As Nicky, an aging pro in the field, Smith seems tired.  Not weary or exasperated like Paul Newman in similarly themed “The Sting.”  Just plain exhausted and out of gas.  His flair and charisma are completely missing in action.

The movie does not even boast any particularly exciting heist scenes or elaborately planned schemes that could help overcome this deficit.  All it really offers to offset Will Smith’s lusterless performance is Margot Robbie, who gets the chance to show that she has more to offer than the sex appeal and histrionics she was reduced to in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  The movie is too boring to really make a definitive statement as to whether she is the real deal, but as Jess, she did make the difference between me turning off the film and seeing it through to a rather humdrum conclusion.  C2stars





REVIEW: Men in Black III

28 12 2012

Arriving 10 years (half my lifetime) after the last sequel, there’s really no reason for “Men In Black III” to have been made except for Will Smith to come out of hibernation into a safe franchise sure not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.  And indeed, Barry Sonnenfeld’s threequel about as harmless as they come.  It’s a nondescript blend of humor and action, friendly to those who don’t know the series as well as the apparently numerous people for whom Sony felt they needed to make this movie.

“Men in Black III” is essentially tied back to the first two films in the series by the presence of Will Smith’s J and Tommy Lee Jones’ K.  But it’s mainly the Smith show as Jones bolts quickly (probably off to film “Hope Springs” and “Lincoln“) as he gets killed off by a former foe … in 1969.  With J as the only person left in this alternate universe that remembers K, he decides to embark on a time-travel adventure back in time to save his partner and restore the natural course of history.

The mission takes him to Cape Canaveral, lingering racial discrimination, and most importantly, Josh Brolin’s younger version of K.  Brolin is totally game to do his best Tommy Lee Jones impersonation, which doesn’t feel all that different from another character of his that could go by a single letter: W.

Brolin is the highlight of “Men in Black III” since Will Smith brings nothing new to the table.  He’s played out K too much, and not just in the “Men in Black” franchise.  Smith turned down the lead in “Django Unchained” last year, a role that would have been quite a departure for him.  Though the two films barely overlapped in shooting schedules, it would be nice to see Smith put up the black shades and tie and don the garb of a new, surprising character.  C+2stars





SAVE YOURSELF from “Ali”

8 08 2010

And you thought I had forgotten about this series.

I’m back again with another movie in the “Save Yourself!” series, which is designed to steer you clear of movies that will serve no purpose other than to waste your time.  I see plenty of movies, and better me than you, right?  I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I do.

This pick might shock you a little bit because it certainly shocks me.  Will Smith is the man who can do no wrong; he basically walks on water at the box office.  And director Michael Mann almost always delivers – I’ll forgive “Public Enemies” because “The Insider” and “Collateral” were both great.  And when you throw in a cast that includes Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, and Jeffrey Wright, that’s another good sign.  Heck, they even got LeVar Burton, who is known to my generation as the guy from “Reading Rainbow,” to play MLK!

Don’t let the signs fool you.  “Ali” is a bore from beginning to end.  Rather than float like a butterfly, the movie drags like a bag of bricks.  And instead of stinging like a bee, the movie lands with so little impact that you could mistake it for having no ambitions at all.

But surely you have your doubts.  How can it be boring when it has Will Smith?  And in an Oscar-nominated performance, no less!  It’s simple: there’s too much Will Smith in the movie and not enough Muhammad Ali.  It’s as if he found the pride of the famous boxer buried deep inside of him and then decided to play only that emotion.

And don’t even get me started on Jon Voight, whose Academy Award nomination for this role is an absolute travesty.  He appears in the movie for literally no more than five minutes, and when he does, there’s no emotion.  There is nothing that moves you, no moment where you step back and say, “Wow, this is a great performance.”  From what I can tell, it’s a very good impersonation of Howard Cossell.  But if he can get that close to Oscar gold for just that, so can any decent celebrity impersonator on the streets of Vegas.

Honestly, I wonder if Michael Mann actually directed this.  He’s made longer movies than this, yet he has always managed to keep them moving at a brisk clip.  “Ali” is like a exercise in hubris, with ridiculously long drawn-out sequences in which very little happens.  In these ten minute stretches, we see more of a nightclub singer than we do of Muhammad Ali, which is who we watched this movie to see.  Mann, with the help of a good editor, could have cut at least 45 minutes from this bloated biopic, although I’m not sure if I would even want to see the movie then.  I can watch Will Smith be himself in plenty of other entertaining movies; I don’t need to see him pretend to be someone he’s not, all the while still being himself.





REVIEW: The Karate Kid

26 06 2010

Oh, the lessons a jacket can teach us.

The Karate Kid” is a remake of questionable necessity – after all, the original is barely a quarter of a century old. Don’t worry, Pat Morita won’t be rolling over in his grave when he gets wind of the update. It’s not awful, and no harm or foul is done; except maybe to kung fu, which is the actual martial art taught in the movie but doesn’t get the honor of being mentioned in the title.

The movie is Jaden Smith’s vehicle, who really needs it because he didn’t get enough exposure in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I’m not expecting some fantastic performance from someone who obviously only got the job because his dad is Will Smith. And it’s wrong to expect him to give us all the charisma and swagger that his old man has spent decades developing. As Dre, Jaden Smith brings to the table two assets that will serve him well if he chooses to keep acting: confidence and presence, which is pretty good for 11.

Dre is making the strange and unexplained move from Detroit to China with little sympathy from his mother (Taraji P. Henson). After catching the eye of a dedicated young violinist, he is unexpectedly launched into a mismatched rivalry with a savage band of ruffians. It doesn’t help matters that these kids have been taught a brand of “no mercy” kung fu (not karate!) by a brutal master. The first half of the movie plays out like an anti-bullying PSA as Dre attempts to avoid his tormentors. All the while, we can’t help but think, “Hey! If only you knew his dad was Will Smith, then I’d like to see you try to beat up this kid!”

And then, as if by some misplaced stage direction, enter Mr. Han, the hermit-like maintenance man of Dre’s building who helps turn the tide in his fight against the bullies by pulling out some unexpected moves. While offering that assistance, he also manages to get a then untrained Dre into a kung-fu tournament against the same people that would love nothing more than to give him a black eye and a bruised rib.

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