Suicide Squad

© 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC

(L-R) WILL SMITH as Deadshot and MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “SUICIDE SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

SUICIDE SQUAD, written and directed by David Ayer, isn’t even a mess.  It aspires to be at least that organized.  It doesn’t fall apart, because it was never together.  In the disjointed narrative, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits Task Force X, a group of wanton, irredeemable criminals, to combat the menace of Batman and Superman—seen as vigilantes by a distrustful (and blindingly ignorant) public.  The premise makes little sense regardless of one’s familiarity with the DC Comics paper or celluloid franchises, not because one can’t conceive of a world in which the actions of an individual can be spun any which way by media conglomerates (you know, like Time Warner, which owns both Warner Bros. and Rottentomatoes).  Neither BATMAN V. SUPERMAN nor this film walk us there, logically.  We, as the audience, still like Superman and Batman, in spite of Zack Snyder’s relentless attempts to repackage them as really bad dudes.

This is the sort of movie where the writer/director gathers a bunch of stereotypes, throws them in a blender and has somebody say “I guess we’re some kind of…” and quote the title.  Yes, really.  Will Smith is the someone.  As Deadshot he’s the black-father-who-does-bad-things-for-a-living and has a daughter whom he placates with empty promises.  Jai Courtney, whom Nick Schager tweeted was only the tenth worst thing about this film, is a rowdy Australian with a boomerang (the first zero-dimensional character I’ve ever seen).  Katana (Karen Fukuhara) recycles Lady Vengeance and every other violence porn flick to come out of Asia, a character written with idiotic solemnity unlike Tarantino’s pastiches of the genre.  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is Killer Croc, walking with a swagger in a hoodie, he talks in a hodgepodge of Cajun accent and urban slang—visual code-within-code for “thug”.  Shouldn’t he be Killer Gator? Never mind.  The flame-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez), covered head to toe in gang tattoos, is how I think Donald Trump’s supporters picture every member of La Raza.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

What presence Jared Leto’s unctuous Joker barely has is a shabby riff off Heath Ledger’s iconic performance punctuated by a sort of Vaudevillian gangster cross between Jimmy Durante and James Cagney.  He’s not terrifying or comical, maybe a little sexually confused. But I can’t really tell, because he’s out-acted by gratuitous shots of former psychologist Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) ass in a costume that Debbie Harry wore better.  In Ayer’s film, Quinn’s love for Joker is a case of Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s carried with the kind of tone-deafness that Stephenie Meyer has for psychologically abusive relationships.

The only moderately interesting character is Enchantress, a centuries-old deity that inhabits the body of June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an early hire into Task Force X.  Waller argues each of these “metahumans” is controllable but for that ever-present possibility of misplacing the kryptonite.  As with many infinitely-powerful, multi-dimensional beings who can span the chasm of space, time and reality, instead of doing something truly fascinating, Enchantress chooses to create a garbage vortex to destroy humanity for locking her up—Gozer the Gozarian much?  Apropos, Enchantress’ appearance shifts from grungy goddess of the underworld to Miss Teen USA with the vaseline scowl.  Revenge has seldom tasted so boring.

All of this is punctuated by such a dearth of visual style, haphazard editing and visual cacophony even Michael Bay must be wondering how cinema sunk so low.  Probably every rock ballad of the 1960s is played, back to back, to distract us from the pictorial spatter buoyed only by the performances of Robbie and Smith.   Even so, how can you call them a suicide squad when, like every other “save the world” action bluff, nothing of consequence is sacrificed?  The Batmobile, seen briefly chasing after Joker and Harley, didn’t even lose so much as a wheel…

Star Trek Beyond

© 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. STAR TREK and all related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios, Inc.

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Captain James T. Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Photo Credit: Kimberly French

 

STAR TREK BEYOND did everything right.  The story focused on interpersonal relationships of the principals, disrupted with an unexpected crisis which sets a plot in motion involving a villain motivated by the belief that he’s doing the right thing, necessitating the aid of a resourceful escapee (Jayla, a spirited homage to Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in WINTER’S BONE, played by Sofia Boutella).  Everything it does right is also everything STAR TREK BEYOND does wrong.

Directed by Justin Lin, written by Simon Pegg (who plays Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Don Jung, the third chapter in the Star Trek reboot opens with a distress call from a stranded vessel lures the crew of the USS Enterprise into a familiar no-win scenario (see Kobayashi Maru): a marooned villain, Krall (Idris Elba), seeks vengeance against Captain Kirk and the United Federation of Planets toward whom he directs his misguided wrath.

At its best, STAR TREK BEYOND adopts the spartan qualities of the 1966 serial which inspired the franchise, balancing between action, tension and character dynamics that produce situational humor naturally leading into catharsis.  At worst, Lin’s first foray into science fiction de-orbits into the baneful territory of fast edits and nauseating camera movements. Poignant moments are set up, but never given a chance to breathe as if the studio’s financiers were constantly pointing at their wristwatches reminding the creative team that time is money.

This is most evident in the film’s climactic confrontation which, aside from being punctuated by the wrong rap song, zigs when it should have zagged.  That is, and without spoiling it, Trek’s strength rested in its life lessons.  It’s been said that Gene Roddenberry was at odds with the militaristic direction in which Nick Meyer took the franchise as he set about depicting, by self-admission, “Horatio Hornblower in space”, i.e. THE WRATH OF KHAN.  This was a reaction to the excessive criticism leveled at STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, mocked for Robert Wise’s pacing (sometimes derided as THE MOTIONLESS PICTURE).

Some readers may feel that TREK’s mottled cinematic history (save for THE VOYAGE HOME) grants clemency to this effort, but that’s perhaps too generous.  Paramount never learned from its mistakes and continued to speculate on “franchise fatigue” when the problem was really narrative weakness.  At the exact moment you think fifty years of experience has finally paid off and the studio that passed on STAR WARS might finally believe in the appeal of redemptive stories, the old “dispatch the villain out the airlock” denouement happens.

Sure, TREK BEYOND is an entertaining ride… But that, and not Cmdr. Sulu’s (John Cho) sexual orientation, is at the center of why the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot runs afoul of the spirit of what STAR TREK was always about: Tackling complex social issues with inventive and diplomatic workarounds.  Relying on violence to captivate audiences has always been the franchise’s Achilles’ heel–before Abrams, and well before Braga and Berman.


Footnote: Some will recall in my INTO DARKNESS review an observation, seemingly prescient in hindsight, comparing the action-obsessive reboot to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, the fifth and sixth installments of which were helmed by Justin Lin.  In all fairness to Lin, the film feels distinctively like Pegg and Lin worked very hard to undo the Bob Orci clusterfuck, both on and off-screen.  Studios are notorious for sending “notes” to the creative team… basically edicts from the financial backers that demand changes since they are, after all, footing the bill.  Among those changes, I suspect, is the pivotal ending.  You can even see, in slow motion, the exact moment at which the studio likely forced Lin to change course in favor of playing it safe.  Granted, this is just speculation (or not; Cho revealed they did in fact cut out a kiss between Sulu and his husband) but I encourage Trek fans and newcomers to see it and decide for yourself if I’m on to something. Not for nothing, but Bob Orci, while removed as director, remained on as producer… you know, one of those assholes who sends notes.

Ghostbusters

© 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) comes to talk to Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at the Paranormal Studies Lab at the Higgin’s Institute in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS.

 

One step away from earning tenure at Princeton, physics wizard Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is drawn back into one of those inexplicable friendships that drive most buddy comedies.  Her childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), hasn’t given up on their paranormal exploits.  Having enlisted the aid of “nuclear scientist” Jill Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) who constructs gadgets for ghost hunting (something an electrical engineer would do, but never mind), Abby coerces Jill into a trip to a mansion haunted by a Lizzie Borden wannabe.  Zach Woods (Jared from HBO’s Silicon Valley) as a tour guide-slash-charlatan sets up an opening that could go in any direction, but doesn’t.  From here, the film re-treads all the major beats of the original GHOSTBUSTERS (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman), yet even that isn’t where it falls apart.

Written by Kate Dippold (THE HEAT), the screenplay re-creates the Venkman-Spengler-Stanz triad with the Zeddmore stand-in repeating the fifth wheel role thrown to Ernie Hudson (this time Leslie Jones as the token streetwise African-American MTA worker).  That the dialogue is peppered with copious amounts of faux-technobabble seems an unnecessary pre-emptive strike against fringe misogynists.  They’re not the film’s greatest obstacle to success.

Instead of trusting the comedic talents of the principals, director Paul Feig (BRIDESMAIDS, SPY) prematurely dials a lifeline in the form of cameos and nods right on the heels of unfolding the first ecto-terrorist plot I’ve ever seen in cinema.  The instant Bill Murray shows up to tangentially reprise his role as a skeptic, any hope of the film standing on its own merits is lost.  And even still, the core problem lies elsewhere.

It’s not that this go-around regurgitates the spectral introduction, the band getting back together, the token black person, the hearse, the headquarters-on-a-budget, the calculating Mayor and his ambitious sidekick, the containment system that can’t contain, haunted Manhattan, the Fourth Cataclysm (if you’re going to bring that up and leave out the rectification of the Voldrani and the Third Reconciliation of the last of the Maketric supplicants… well, I have no words for you)… It’s the inconsistency of the dialogue, story and editing that leaves me flat.

After the crafty opening haunt at the mansion, the first act plays like an SNL sketch with each of the seasoned players channeling characters that feel too borrowed from earlier material.  When the acting comes off its stilts, the narrative climbs aboard and trundles dutifully through all the transit stops until we arrive, predictably, at a climactic sequence that makes you wonder how Michelin turned down promotional placement in a successful franchise twice.

I almost forgot to tell you that Chris Hemsworth is in this film.  That the film spends a great deal of time dwelling on his dumber-than-styrofoam character because there’s so little confidence in the comedic chops of the four female principals should tell you why I don’t care that Hemsworth is in this film.  Sure, he’s great to look at and jokes abound.  But it leaves me wondering if studios have forgotten who they are trying to please, are trying to please everyone and no one at the same time, or simply don’t care if they please anyone at all.   The film won’t please film purists who believe that GHOSTBUSTERS should never have been remade.  The film won’t please women for whom the fabrication of intelligent banter seems lazy.  The film might please eight to twelve year olds, who will have no knowledge or recollection of the original … begging the question as to why so much time and effort needed to be spent revisiting old territory and paying overspent actors for unnecessary appearances if the likeliest audience for this film doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

The one person at my screening who I can say was truly excited about this entire affair periodically shouted, “WHOYAGONNACALLLLLLL” in a way that telegraphed his blood alcohol content.  And I am convinced that the average eight to twelve year old is more demanding in their tastes.

A parting thought: As I left the theater, my conscience grappled: Is this the future of cinema?  Are we doomed to an endless stream of recycled pictures consisting entirely of reconstituted gristle seasoned with guest appearances (in thirty years can we expect Wiig and co. to make cameos in a rebooted reboot?), so that, like a few theme parks that come to mind, the audience can fork out the gross domestic product of a small country to rent a chair, watch oversaturated colors fly at them (in gimmicky 3D) on an improperly lit projection with uncomfortably loud sound?  I’m trying to think of a witty, Gene Shalit punchline to this… but now I’m just fucking depressed.

The Neon Demon

NEON DEMON. ©2016, Broad Green Pictures.

ELLE FANNING as Jesse in Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON.

 

Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s elegy to the 80’s riffs endlessly off the visuals of better directors (DePalma, Mann, Cronenberg, Lynch) while succumbing to its own conceits.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, the typical naif in a sun dress and braids, telegraphing her ingenue-off-the-bus status to her fellow models—clearly L.A. natives in their bodices, skin-tight leather jeans and Aviators.  The joke played best in Verhoeven’s SHOWGIRLS, in which Elizabeth Berkeley arrives in Las Vegas, a wide-eyed optimist from Bumblefuck, U.S.A., leeches off the sweetest (read: dumbest) boy in town, and climbs to the top of the entertainment world ladder.   The genius of filmmakers like Verhoeven and DePalma was that one could never quite tell whether they were in on the joke or not.   Where’s Kyle MacLachlan when you need him to spell it out?*

Jesse befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose unrequited attraction veers the plot into manufactured unease as a setup for a tonal and narrative shift that makes no sense.   Absent is the necessary connective tissue walking us logically from Ruby’s ill-timed come ons to her misguided turn.  Instead, we get a disjointed series of vignettes that tell a less coherent story than 117 minutes of Human League, DEVO and Talking Heads music videos spliced together indiscriminately.  There was a great opportunity for Refn to take notes from DRESSED TO KILL (De Palma) and make a bolder statement about sexuality, gender identity and power, but instead he opts for the more worn-out trope of the has-been’s revenge.  The has-been, Sarah (Abbey Lee), and her protege, Gigi (Bella Heathcote), engage in psychological warfare with Jesse.  Undeterred, Jesse becomes Queen of the Plastics—errr, the new hot commodity.

Verhoeven had the sense to toy with the sexual tension between Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors and Berkeley’s Nomi Malone, but Refn plays it straight.  It’s fine that this turns it into black comedy akin to Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s AMERICAN PSYCHO, but when a filmmaker imagines himself and his work to be high-minded “events”, evinced by the aura and awe manufactured through NEON DEMON’S publicity campaigns, it’s awfully pedestrian of him to reduce the story to a pissing match with less depth than the feud between Regina George and Cady Heron in MEAN GIRLS.  In MEAN GIRLS and SHOWGIRLS, both approach the macabre humor of PSYCHO—Regina gets hit by a bus, Cristal gets thrown down a flight of stairs.  An empty pool in Los Angeles?  Why not just toss her off the U.S. Bank Tower with a faulty wing suit so she can crash face-first into the side of the Bonaventure?  If you’re going to mock your own art flick with a Los Angeles cliché…

Refn is too engrossed in false color nostalgia, replicating the moods and palettes of the 80s, like Panos Cosmatos (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) or the retro-wave hipster bands of late–copying the sound and fashion, but never bothering to listen to the lyrics.


* Keanu Reeves cast against type as a child predator seems less motivated by his acting chops—spanning the entire gamut of blank—than an attempt to update the joke hoping Millennials might get it. After the fact, reading scads of reviews and comments comparing this film to BLACK SWAN (2010), both the story and the subtext (if any) are completely lost on them anyway. So too is a casting stunt meant to contrast with a diametrically-opposed role ten years older than Aronofsky’s SHOWGIRLS-meets-FIGHT CLUB on crazy pills.

 

Captain America: Civil War

© Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

Chris Evans as Captain America and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. © Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

 

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

-Samuel Johnson, 7 April 1775

 

In the 1950s, as declassified documents reveal, the Central Intelligence Agency created Project MKUltra, an attempt at using conditioning/interrogation techniques in combination with psychotropics (LSD) for mind control of subjects.  Uncovering moles was the Agency’s initial goal.  The program had considerable participation from numerous institutions and prestigious universities and, along with the Tuskegee Experiment and radiation exposure tests on Native American subjects associated with the Manhattan Project, the operation remains one of America’s darkest spots.

Albeit a failure, MKUltra continued on through the 1970s.  Its test subjects included counterculture author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber.  Ted Kaczynski was a UC Berkeley professor until he inexplicably quit in 1969, by all accounts then a normal individual until he was subjected to a controversial study conducted by Henry Murray.  Kacyznski is serving eight consecutive life sentences at a SUPERMAX prison for sixteen bombing scommitted between 1978 and 1995.   In 2010, ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the United States and exchanged in a prisoner swap.  The Cold War, it seems, never ended.

Following the narrative set in motion by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, its title a reference to the Winter Soldier hearings and Paine’s quote in The American Crisis, the Avengers are met with fierce criticism in the wake of collateral damage in Lagos.  Wakandan aid workers in a nearby office building withstood an explosion the superheroes attempted to contain while in pursuit of a terrorist stealing a biological weapon.  Wakanda, for those new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a fictional African nation, home to the precious vibranium ore—also fictional, a virtually indestructible material from which Captain America’s shield is made.

Out of this catastrophe, the jurisprudence of the Avengers is questioned by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). They’re effectively under house arrest until the Sokovia Accords which will place their oversight in the hands of the United Nations.  A prime suspect at the center of foul play in the signing of the Accords is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a former instrument of the Cold War, not unlike those test subjects and sleeper agents—literally thawed out and “activated” to assassinate targets with secret codes.  The embers of Barnes’ friendship with Steve Rogers/Captain America ignite a rift between two camps within the Avengers—those wary of their unchecked power and those skeptical of oversight by governments easily infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi splinter faction corrupting nations since World War II.

Several of the characters are placed in a moral dilemma.  The opening scene’s destruction comes at the hands of Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, an “enhanced” individual with special powers; Marvel’s extant licensing agreement with Fox bars overt use of the X-Men trademark.  Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie; watch for a timely Mark Fuhrman reference), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and other superheroes on both sides seem less cocksure of their chosen side (TEAM CAP or TEAM IRONMAN, marketing mirroring the media penchant for polarization).  But the standout is Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther.

The son of Wakanda’s king, Prince T’Challa skirts the Magical Negro trope for his role as the one voice of rational skepticism guiding the principal, and predominately white, characters out of their conundrum—self-inflicted out of a plot-convenient failure to communicate.  However, a pivotal scene I will not spoil, makes T’Challa a leader:  He spares another man similarly consumed by rage, whereas Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would have killed another.

When directors Joe and Anthony Russo are at their best, inspired by Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and Ritt’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, they dive into character details.  In their previous film,  Black Widow and the titular Captain America bantered about their personal lives, continuing in that vein with a sensitivity absent in other Marvel films.  In CIVIL WAR, we see shards of Bucky’s shattered life—the tattered mattress on the floor of his flophouse room, candy bars strewn atop the refrigerator and a journal with a museum brochure in it.

On the obverse, Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) receives short shrift despite a setup in THE WINTER SOLDIER for a solid, thoughtfully crafted role as Agent 13 in Marvel’s clandestine unit, S.H.I.E.L.D.  A shoehorned romance with Captain Rogers plays inappropriately, too soon, and entirely out of character for either of them.  A subplot involving other sleeper agents serves no purpose and meets no end except as a vehicle to further the rift between Stark and Rogers.

The film lacks the grace of THE WINTER SOLDIER which paces its fantasy action and political thriller elements more evenly.  The Russos devote substantial time undoing the incoherent mess Joss Whedon left behind in AGE OF ULTRON—even working in a joke about Clint Barton’s (Renner) family life and Tony’s inexplicable un-retirement.

So busy juggling character introductions and story setups, the story never really resolves its own central thesis: whether or not the Avengers, save for Rogers, can learn to fight for something beyond themselves and each other.  Once they take sides after Lagos, subsequent battles occur in remote or vacant locales presenting no moral quandary.  Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has a funny scene that might turn horrifying if the airport weren’t conveniently evacuated.

Saddled with the responsibility of introducing numerous characters and threads leading into the climactic INFINITY WARS, CIVIL WAR is effective yet falls short of brilliance, were it instead focused narrowly on rebuilding the fragments of Bucky and Steve’s friendship.  They’ve 70 years of catching up to do and the film cannot spare them a single moment, save for a glance of solidarity.  Why, when theirs is the saddest story of all?  Bucky was enlisted twice: First, as Steve’s friend and protector.  Then drafted into service, made a prisoner of war, tortured and conditioned to commit horrible atrocities.  Steve is still the little scrapper from Brooklyn who lied to enlist, so he could combat atrocities and the bullies who commit them. Bucky is a victim in recovery, fighting other people’s battles his entire life.  Like SSgt. William James in THE HURT LOCKER, Steve is no Sunshine Patriot.  For him, the war never ends.

High-Rise

©2016, Magnolia Pictures.

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A Boy Eats His Dog -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Twenty-Fifth Floor.

It wasn’t the coke-fueled sex parties at the pool, the string quartet playing ABBA at a decadent, Restoration-period costume party in the penthouse, or the literal defacing of a cadaver’s head that struck me—the least of the film’s grotesqueries.   There’s a moment in Ben Wheatley’s HIGH RISE where physiologist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), architect of a Gilliam-esque apartment complex-turned-social experiment, volley serves in a game of squash when you notice the warped, desiccated floorboards of the court.   This occurs well before other hints that Royal’s dream, residential towers intended to form an outstretched hand, is becoming an inescapable nightmare—think Sartre’s No Exit.

Adapted by Amy Jump from a novel by J.G. Ballard that’s been stuck in development hell for a good thirty years, HIGH RISE is a timely retro-mod commentary on social inequality that has no protagonist.  Rather, it has an agonist: The fucking trash chute.  I’m reminded of an apartment complex my wife and I lived in some years ago that was billed as “luxury living”.  The architect saddled the management company with, reportedly, somewhere around 1,300 design flaws.   A few dozen drunken trust fund baby, 3am-on-a-Tuesday pool orgies later, we abandoned ship… I kept tabs on the reviews only to discover that within the year that followed, the hallway trash pileups graduated to dogshit piles.  HIGH RISE descends through several more levels of hell before hitting bottom.

The film is more meticulous in design than the concrete albatross in which it takes place.  You know from the solitaires on both ring fingers, one weathered hand pressed to Laing’s forehead to confirm a fever, that his assistant is a remarried mother.  Is it relevant to the plot? No.  It’s relevant to the atmosphere, which plays somewhere in the space between Bong Joon Ho’s SNOWPIERCER (class warfare), Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (bureaucracy, aristocracy, excessive ductwork) , Cameron Crowe’s VANILLA SKY (trapped in a nightmare), and some touches of Richard E. Grant’s shrinking grasp on reality in Bruce Robinson’s HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING.

My former writer, Daniel Laabs, introduced the film at the Tenth Annual Dallas International Film Festival, exuberantly declaring it “insane”.  On the contrary, the film couldn’t be clearer.   It’s the tenants who slip (read: derail) into bacchanalian indulgence, save for Laing—the calm in the eye of the storm.  After dabbling in the sex, booze and brutality, in one instance over a can of paint in the onsite grocery store (it takes a moment before you realize that no one ever leaves this concrete hell except for work), Laing dissociates while the other residents unravel.  Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), his upstairs neighbor, is another matter.  Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) is Wilder’s object of lust; Helen Wilder (Elizabeth Moss), his unbridled rage.  Yet Wilder remains, as Laing observes, actually sane—self-aware of the accretive psychological effects of the anarchy aboard this festering eyesore.

Royal and his entourage of aristocratic sycophants descend further into madness, at one point protesting that Wilder has taken to, “raping people he’s not supposed to rape” whilst themselves raping and pillaging.  It’s almost absurd, until you remember Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.   Royal and his penthouse loiterers actively plot to steal resources from the lower floors/classes who are too far gone to organize a resistance—the women lack agency, the men are out to lunch.  Unlike the French Revolution, the film ends with a bang AND a whimper….

The Jungle Book

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”

In attempting to distance themselves from Kipling’s racist views of indigenous peoples and British colonization/occupation of the same, as well as the conservative views of Walt Disney’s founding father as reflected in the values of the 1967 motion picture, Disney created a version of The Jungle Book which has no sense of the setting or culture of India.

A feral child, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), is raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), a mated pair of wolves, leaders of a pack coexisting in a truce with other animals of the jungle.  When threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a wounded and hungry tiger distrustful of humans, Mowgli and his mentor, the panther cum narrator Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), decide that Mowgli must return to the world of his fellow humans.

The story follows Mowgli’s adventure as he is befriended by an opportunistic bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), preyed upon by a python (Scarlett Johansson in a trippy sequence that, thankfully, shelves the musical number for the end credits), and creeped out by a power-hungry Orangutan, King Louie (Christopher Walken, fulfilling his duty as the eccentric weirdo who shows up half-way through the picture).   Aside from the murderous tiger, quaaludes-and-fog snake, gigantism-stricken primate singing an upbeat tune about assimilation in a maniacally-destructive rampage, this is totally a children’s movie… or not.

The computer generated animals look convincing, melding language with their natural facial movement, avoiding the uncanny valley but at the same time imbuing the grim story with a realism that some children might find unsettling.   To wit: the woman sitting to my right spent the entire film consoling her child from one tragedy to the next.  But, even and especially the unnervingly precocious child-actor Sethi, a Manhattanite billed as a real Indian (I’m a real Indian too, but my parents couldn’t afford private schools), takes me out of what’s supposed to be colonial India…. never mind the grey wolves, orangutans, jerboas and myriad other animals who don’t exist there.  I like Sethi, and maybe he’d be perfect in a comedy about a precocious Indian-American who gets lost in the grid-layout of Manhattan only to be found by a scheming casting agent played by Joe Pesci.  But here, his line readings and over pronounced body language has to be carried by the likes of Sir Ben of whose majestic enunciation the film seems undeserving and Murray who I was certain had sworn off acting aside CG cats.  I had forgotten that paychecks can induce amnesia.

That said, the film is visual spectacle, to be sure.  And one becomes invested in the fates of the characters, including Mowgli’s inquisitive pack-mate, Grey (Brighton Rose).  The film creates a clear sense of right and wrong; violence and greed are blinding forces that threaten a delicate balance upon which all depend.  More disturbing than any chase sequence is a moment where Shere Khan attempts to destabilize the wolf pack by gas-lighting the pups—Mowgli is an outsider usurping their den.  As Shere Khan spins the lie, the terror in Raksha’s eyes is heart-breaking.  In that sense, the film combats the kind of otherism perpetuated by Kipling and the Colonial aristocracy.  Given the current sociopolitical climate of xenophobic vitriol, there’s substantial merit in instilling these values in the next generation that might, like Mowgli and his companions, rescue us from ourselves.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics

(L-R) HENRY CAVILL as Superman, GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman and BEN AFFLECK as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

It’s generally a bad, bad sign when a screening is prefaced by a video of the director pleading with critics to not spoil any key detail of the film.  As Roger Ebert famously wrote, “What makes a movie great is not what it is about, but how it is about it.”  It’s a given that critics understand the unwritten rule of not spoiling the plot, and no studio executive or director needs to educate us on the basics of critical analysis.  That is, a good critic doesn’t beat you in the head with paragraph after paragraph of expository synopsis.  That’s Zack Snyder’s job.

DC and Warner Bros. have put their hat in the superhero ring with this tepid follow up to MAN OF STEEL (2006), again penned by David Goyer who seems to hate moviegoers more than he hates critics.  In schizophrenic fashion, Goyer’s crammed three movies into one with his signature incompetence—exposition, redundant flashbacks (who doesn’t know that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered?), recycled platitudes (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”), and a franchise-reinforced false sense of security coupled with a complete departure from character (Kent’s as dour as Supes, and selfish to boot?).

Without tempting fate and angry phone calls from a desperately insecure director, the central plot of BATMAN V SUPERMAN introduces us to Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg’s version of Lex Luthor.  Instead of a hackneyed plot to corner the real estate market, Luthor masterminds a criminal plot to pit crimefighters against one another with a series of easily disproven falsehoods.  What could possibly go wrong?  I’m not saying Lex is terrible at covering his tracks but he’d have been better off ordering those armor piercing rounds through the Adam & Eve Catalog.  But then the story would be missing a paper trail for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to follow.  “Gumshoe” comes from Latin, meaning, “Plot convenience.”

Peculiar even still that Henry Cavill’s Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman never crossed paths without Luthor’s machinations.  From Metropolis, Superman can hear a girl trapped in a burning building somewhere in Mexico—correction, in the Snyderverse, Supes gets his crime alerts from network news!—yet never does he sense that these and other “metahumans” could use some help fighting injustice now and then?  To be fair, Luthor put so much effort into creating custom electronic dossiers with neat little logos, practically naming the future Justice League.  He stores them in a secured filesystem that nobody knows exists.  As with all Hollywood hackers, all it takes is a hunch about a codename the meaning of which you haven’t the slightest clue and you’ll magically stumble upon the precise, completely unrelated, information the villain needs you to find to cartwheel into the third act.

Fans of the Superman comics already know how this film will end.  The answer is right in the theatrical trailer.  Perhaps DC and Snyder felt rushed to cram four character introductions into one story to catch up with Marvel’s Avengers franchise—nearing its plateau with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, the lead-in to Phase Three and the climactic Infinity Wars.

After MAN OF STEEL spent the entire third act disintegrating into a blurry, CG mess of incomprehensible action, you’d think Snyder would resist the temptation.  Yet here he plunges even further into the abyss with violence escalating beyond all comprehension.  Yes, we get that they’re practically gods (Wonder Woman actually is one, which begs the question: Why armor?), but Snyder creates a series of bigger explosions and greater “inescapable” scenarios which works itself to absurdity until the audience, not the villain, is beaten into submission.  What about their ability to relate to one another’s unique search for identity and purpose?  Wouldn’t that make for an interesting genesis?

Adding insult to injury, the first two acts snowballing into this clusterfuck are dedicated to doubling-down on Snyder’s misinterpretation of Superman in the previous installment: Having just killed Zod, one of his only remaining Kryptonian cousins in MAN OF STEEL, Superman doesn’t vow to be a pacifist—the Superman we know, love, and admire.  Snyder desecrates everything that made Superman the exception among even superheroes: This Superman will be a petty, sneering, vengeful Superman with greater disregard for human life than ever before.  How crass does a director have to be?  Now he’s following in Bob Orci’s, Damon Lindelof’s and J.J. Abrams’ footsteps trying to rationalize missteps to the media.  He compares the toxically-mascuine violence of BvS with the planet-annihilating First Order of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.  Never mind that the destruction in the latter is committed entirely by the villains.

But at least Bruce Wayne gets a ridiculous Rocky-esque training montage (sans John Cafferty motivational music) while almost every single woman in the film is either abducted or murdered.  I can’t wait to see what kind of positive feminist message awaits us in the upcoming Wonder Woman film…

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

© Warner Bros. Pictures

© Warner Bros. Pictures

What makes us human?  Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,  Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (originally released in 1982; now in its fourth incarnation) explores this question through the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer who “retires” synthetically engineered beings called Replicants.  Four Nexus-6 Replicants have escaped from an off-world colony, where their kind are used as disposable labor in harsh conditions unsuitable to humans.  Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Darryl Hannah) are led by the calculating Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).  Either the studio did not afford Scott the time, or he didn’t care enough to show us, so everything I’ve just described is relayed in an expository opening crawl.

Saturated with images establishing the decrepit future of Los Angeles, 2019, Scott’s picture revels in postwar dystopian slang, a crumbling world wrought by specific oppression rather than benign negligence—the dilapidated Bradbury, impoverished Asian-American commoners muttering Esperanto or the like, and off in the distance, gleaming pyramids representing the monolithic Tyrell Corp, manufacturers of the Replicants—all suffocated in smoggy, diffuse light flashing through window shades as if we didn’t already know from the hammy Hammett dialogue that this a film noir.

Deckard uses a standardized psychological test, called the Voight-Kampff, to profile suspected Replicants and identify them on the basis of their lack of memories or normal emotional responses to provocation.  Invited to meet the founder, Mr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Deckard’s asked to administer the test to Rachel (Sean Young), a next-generation Replicant with memories implanted in the hope of fostering better emotional stability and human interaction.  Replicants have been given a four-year lifespan to prevent stunted emotions—a consequence of not having memories.  Rachel has both memories and a limited lifespan, and she shows up in an alley precisely when Deckard needs her to, but never mind.

The only characterizations that work for me are Cassidy’s Zhora and Hauer’s Batty.  Zhora, an assassin from a “kick murder squad” (whatever the hell that is), survives as a dancer in a seedy bar run by a stereotypically loathsome owner, Taffey Lewis (Hy Pike).  Zhora’s intensity and desperation followed by her public execution gains our empathy; did Deckard really have to kill her if she was going to die anyway?

If I were to ask anyone what defines the characters of Rachel or Pris, they might answer, “shoulder pads and cartwheels”.  All the detail is focused on how these women look—window dressing without the window.  Only Rutger Hauer is afforded the opportunity to chew scenery, figuratively and literally as he bashes his head through a wall and takes a nail through his palm.  Can Christ metaphors be any more sophomoric than that?

Scott’s story makes less sense than its individual images.  He attempts to connect the world visually through Mayan and Egyptian architectural motifs, occasionally stumbling his way into beautiful static triumphs of set and costume design, yet never connects them into a whole as Deckard trundles about the city hunting down the four Replicants.  A descendant of BLADE RUNNER, Alex Proyas’ sci-noir, DARK CITY, at least followed through with the question it begged about the core of humanity and the seemingly constructed nature of its contiguous world drowned in perpetual darkness.  Deckard (which my computer, apropos, keeps auto-correcting to “dickered”) is too busy chasing Replicants.

BLADE RUNNER doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you.  It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post-human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen.   Some of the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either.  – Pauline Kael

Like Nolan’s INCEPTION and Kubrick’s 2001, Scott’s works are really shallow, action set pieces masquerading as profound science fiction.  His films are themed, generally, in simplistic terms for broad consumption: David vs. Goliath, man vs. industry, good vs. evil, us vs. them.  Only in subsequent re-edits did Scott reverse engineer the character study, but in the wrong direction.  The Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions of the film show Deckard dreaming of unicorns.  Later, his sidekick Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn at Deckard’s doorstep, implying that the dream or memory is implanted.  Various writers including Frank Darabont, have argued that the change, and Scott’s concrete confirmation in interviews, undermines the film’s morality.  As a human, it’s transformational for Deckard to gain empathy for Roy who ultimately accepts his own fate in a stunning, existential soliloquy that Hauer crafted on set.  As a Replicant, Deckard’s just looking out for his own kind.  It upends the entire meaning of the story, not that there’s a coherent one to begin with.

BLADE RUNNER is excessively praised for its visuals as well as its score by Vangelis, shallow compared to the Maestro’s other compositions and riffing heavily off the mood pieces in his homage to film noir, The Friends of Mr. Cairo, released a year earlier.  As much I am a fan of Vangelis’ work, I agree with Kael that, like his accompaniment of Scott’s dreadful 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, the electro-orchestral score overwhelms the imagery and dialogue, or perhaps Scott isn’t skilled enough to keep up with Vangelis’ grandiosity.  I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult.


 

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT is playing in a limited run at the Texas Theater.