sci-fi

Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad
2016

© Warner Bros.

© Warner Bros.

Earlier this year, DC Films started its serious attempt at creating an expanded universe to combat the one that rival Marvel Studios already has in place. They kicked things of with the critically-maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in preparation for their upcoming Justice League films. I sat through that two-and-a-half hour slog, actually finding myself somewhat drawn to the storyline and to the characters we have seen portrayed on-screen time and again. I ultimately blasted the film for its climactic bait-and-switch which took away any possibility for DC to make a bold statement within the superhero film genre that would have stood in stark opposition to the seemingly happy-go-lucky Marvel fare we have seen over the past eight years. One of the key crosses that DC bears in the creation of its films is this idea that they must be the darker alternative to their more light-hearted counterpart. As a result, their films have lacked a true sense of fun and adventure, but the studio hoped their newest installment might be the one to break that dreary mold. 

Suicide Squad opens with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a military operative attempting to craft a plan for keeping America safe from future meta-human threats in the wake of Superman's death. She plans to assemble a team of dangerous criminals forced into taking high-risk missions on behalf of the government. The team, emotionally led by an elite hitman known as Deadshot (Will Smith) and a deranged psychiatrist named Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), must fall in line behind Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) as an ancient menace begins terrorizing Midway City in a plot that could spell doom for the entire world. The group of hardened and seedy individuals must then decide whether their own personal proclivities overpower the needs of the rest of the world before time runs out. 

Let's just cut to the chase: Suicide Squad is a terrible movie. I'll get more into the specifics in just a moment, but the film simply illustrates a summation of cataclysmic factors that generate one of the worst filmgoing experiences I have seen in quite some time. Below-par movies oftentimes manage to have some sort of silver lining or saving grace, but Suicide Squad earns the rare distinction of being an all-around stinker. Let's figure out just what fails, shall we? 

If a film can only be as strong as its screenplay, then Suicide Squad must have been made with particle board. I'll discuss the issues and concerns with the movie's cast and stylistic choices momentarily, but every aspect of the film ultimately suffers as a result of an abysmal script that simply doesn't allow the actors or the story any room to breathe. The film opens with an overly long introductory segment in which Viola Davis's character runs through the members of her brand new "bad guy" task force. These rapid-fire cut scenes play like the lineup introduction during an NFL broadcast, complete with a list of stats and misdemeanors for each and every character. Rather than allowing the audience to meet the characters organically over the course of the film, we are given a rush-cut of their personas and ideals right from the start in the hopes that skimming through these introductions will allow the main storyline to hold the film's focus. The film's opening feels sloppy and rushed, but I hoped that the lack of attention to these introductory moments might give way to a decent storyline filled with the lighthearted humor that a DC film so desperately needed. What we get instead, however, is a plot so ridiculously muddled that it seems as though the characters themselves can't keep it straight. 

The cast does its absolute best to elevate itself above the atrocities the screenplay presents them, but there's only so much an actor can do with awful material. Will Smith plays himself here, bringing a little bit of his personal flavor to the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold character we have seen so many times before. Margot Robbie portrays a perfectly adequate Harleen Quinzel, and to her credit, she seems to be having the most fun with her character. Aside from the lack of true characterization, my biggest gripe with her performance lies in the fact that her accent slipped on more than one occasion throughout the film. As you may have heard, Jared Leto has infamously taken on the Joker persona, portraying the character on-screen for the first time since the passing of the late Heath Ledger. All of the marketing for Suicide Squad played as though the Joker would be a central figure throughout the film, but in the final cut, he's simply resigned to chasing after his honey bunny Harley. In the few scenes in which Leto actually appears, he hams it up, leaving his performance feeling over-the-top and borderline pretentious. Reports have surfaced that a number of his scenes were cut from the final film product, and perhaps a more fleshed-out Joker would have presented a stronger performance. As it currently stands, however, it feels more like piecemeal than anything else. We can round out the stars of the film with Viola Davis, who brings a seemingly strong character out of the muck. Her screen presence alone makes her a minor shine in the film, but everything else just leaves her star power dwarfed. 

The remainder of the cast rests on a spectrum ranging from under-utilized to absolutely atrocious. Jay Henandez's Diablo just might be the film's best-written character, receiving an actual arc over the course of the story. In contrast, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Killer Croc might receive the slightest amount of background information; all I gathered about the character was that he is some sort of mutated individual who now eats other humans for fun. Jai Courtney shows up and actually plays against type (in that his normal "type" is stoic and dull), but I never really got a sense of his character's motivations. Cara Delevingne plays both sides of the field, but that simply means she offers her awful performance to both the good guys and the bad guys in what culminates in the movie's worst performance. Joel Kinnaman, Kara Fukuhara, and Adam Beach round out the principal cast, but each proves to be either mediocre or forgettable. Again, most of the blame of this film must lie with the screenplay itself, but even so, this cast offers up a slew of poor performances. 

Suicide Squad also offers a number of peculiar stylistic choices that don't necessarily work with the end result. The cinematography can be characterized as colorfully murky, presenting a grimy world that still hopes to show some bright flash aimed at keeping viewers invested. Suicide Squad does take a step away from the full-on dreariness that Zack Snyder has crafted with his Superman entries, but this one never feels like it does quite enough to bring it completely out of that darker atmosphere. The musical choices also left me scratching my head. The film takes a page from the Guardians of the Galaxy playbook by offering a number of catchy and recognizable rock and pop songs meant to draw the viewers interest. Unlike its Marvel counterpart, however, these song selections are not used to enhance the film or add to the storyline; instead, they seem haphazardly placed simply as a veiled attempt at keeping the audience engaged. 

All of its flaws aside, Suicide Squad simply proves to be a slog of a film. I know that I have been an outspoken opponent of the superhero genre in general, and I know that I clearly do not fall into the key demographic for this realm of movies. In addition to the diehard comic book fans itching to see their favorite characters on-screen, studios mainly market these movies to adolescent boys looking for explosions and edgy - but not inappropriate - humor. I'm sure that plenty of people in that group enjoyed Suicide Squad, but I also saw a thirteen-year-old in a seat near me fall asleep halfway through the film. Suicide Squad is a boring, muddled mess of a movie, and all you DC fans deserve so much better. 

Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond
2016

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

When J.J. Abrams took the helm of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans around the world rejoiced. Having seen what he had done with reinvigorating the Star Trek franchise, many believed him to be the perfect fit for George Lucas's universe. Trekkers, on the other hand, started to worry about their beloved franchise that Abrams had brought back from the brink. For the first time in years, it seemed as though Star Trek could be a viable film franchise, but with their director's departure, it let the series in a state of limbo. A number of names were tossed into consideration for the job, but no one knew whether Abrams's successor could bring the same quality of film that the previous two installments had brought. 

Star Trek Beyond follows the continuing adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise, led by the fearless Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). Three years deep into their five-year mission, Kirk has started to grow tired with his life in space and looks to seat himself behind a desk for the remainder of his career. When a distress signal sends he and his crew into the depths of a nebula, the Enterprise is suddenly and deliberately attacked by an alien force led by the evil Krall (Idris Elba). Stranded on an uncharted without a ship, Kirk and his crew must improvise to the best of their abilities to escape their captivity and return to the Federation. In the process, however, they soon learn that Krall's plot may spell doom for the entire galaxy. 

The success of the first two films ensured that the franchise would need a fitting replacement in the director's chair. The studio ultimately landed on Justin Lin, who brought an eye for action from the Fast and the Furious franchise. Would he be able to juggle that grounded, streetcar action with the sci-fi element so desperately needed in the Star Trek universe? Fortunately, Lin was blessed with a solid screenplay from Doug Jung and Simon Pegg which surely helped him in his endeavors. 

Star Trek has long been the franchise that delves into intelligent science fiction with a solid basis of social commentary. While I feel as though these movies have strayed a bit from the latter, they have still offered fans their legitimate dose of sci-fi, even if the ships and gadgets don't wow us the way they must have amazed audiences in the 1960s. Jung and Pegg easily slide into this vein, bringing a story rife with action, drama, and a true sense of adventure. The story itself kept me guessing, and I was so engrossed with the film that I found myself shocked with some of the twists and turns it took. That's a true testament to the filmmakers' storytelling ability. What really sets this franchise apart, however, is its ability to craft complete and believable characters. While most of these characters have a long and storied history through the television show and the previous films, but I believe that these characters have adapted for the grander universe in which they now live, bringing slightly different nuances to the table. This installment also felt much more team-oriented than its predecessors; while the last two films centered around the Kirk and Spock characters, Beyond gave the rest of the cast the opportunity to show off their character's individual skill sets. If Justin Lin brought anything over from the Furious franchise, it was the ability to demonstrate effectively the best qualities of a team through its individual members. We definitely get a sense of that with Star Trek Beyond. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have their screen-time but don't dominate the story; instead, we get to see a little bit more of Pegg's Scotty, Karl Urban's McCoy, Zoe Saldana's Uhura, John Cho's Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov as they play integral roles in saving the galaxy from destruction. 

I could easily spend plenty of time on the cast's effectiveness within their individual roles, but most of the returning players meet the splendid status quo they have achieved in the past two films. Instead, I want to focus on the franchise newcomers in Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba. Boutella, who most might remember from her supporting role as an assassin in last year's Kingsman, does a fantastic job playing opposite Montgomery Scott for most of the film's duration. She brings to life a multifaceted character who is given plenty of time to showcase her incredible physical prowess while still delving into slightly dramatic moments while talking about her character's past. Elba, who has been all over the cinematic map this year, takes on the nefarious villain Krall and does so incredibly effectively. Despite being hidden beneath layers of makeup, Elba still manages to bring a menacing ferocity to the character and just might cement himself as the best villain in this particular saga. 

I do want to take a moment to mention the two members of the Star Trek family have passed since the release of 2013's Into Darkness. The legendary Leonard Nimoy, who originated the Spock character and reprised him in these most recent films, was given a fitting sendoff, and the filmmakers used their love and admiration for him as a sort of springboard for Zachary Quinto's Spock in this film. The world more recently lost the young Anton Yelchin, and it proved to be incredibly difficult for me to watch him on the screen knowing that we would never be able to see just how far his potential would take him. I felt as though his character receives more screen-time in Beyond than he had in the previous installments which I believe is a testament to the fact that his star power was on the rise. The two received simple but fitting tributes as the credits rolled, and I personally had to hold back the waterworks as their names flashed by. While there will be more posthumous performances from the young Yelchin, seeing him one last time in the biggest of his adventures solidified his place in Hollywood lore. 

While I can't quite say that this is the best entry in the newest Star Trek saga, Beyond serves as an incredibly enjoyable film from start to finish. Justin Lin picks up exactly where J.J. Abrams left off, and Star Trek fans should have faith with the direction the franchise now seems to be heading. If you're looking for a smart, exciting, and adventurous blockbuster, you'd be hard-pressed to find something better than Star Trek Beyond playing in theaters right now. 


Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters
2016

© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

Last year's Oscar-winning film Mad Max: Fury Road opened in theaters to a bout of controversy. When it quickly became apparent that Charlize Theron's Furiosa would actually be the film's central character, a vocal minority of men's rights activists began to raise their hands in alarm. How could they possibly take such an iconic, masculine character as Max Rockatansky and belittle him to the passenger seat next to an empowered - and incredibly badass - woman? I feel as though many of those outcries fell silent when Fury Road proved to be one of the best action films in decades; around the same time, however, similar sentiments began circulating the Internet like a shark smelling blood in the water and circling its prey.

Ghostbusters serves as a reboot of the classic franchise started back in the mid-1980s. The new film opens with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a Columbia University professor on the cusp of earning tenure just as her hidden ghost-hunting past rears its ugly head. Infuriated that her chance at earning a career at a prestigious university has been put on the line, she goes to confront her old colleague, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who has never given up the chase for the paranormal and seems to be ready for a breakthrough of her own. Joined by her new partner Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), the three quickly find themselves in the midst of investigating an alleged apparition that opens their eyes to a world of possibility. With a rise of spectral visions appearing across New York City, the trio adds the street-smart Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to complete their ghost-busting quartet. Little do they know that a larger plot may be at play that could spell certain doom not only for their city but also for the entire world. 

Many consider the original Ghostbusters film to be a comedic classic of the 1980s, but I want to preface the rest of my review with this sentiment: I am not a massive fan of Ivan Reitman's original venture; I find it entertaining, but I've never truly been smitten with the '80s brand of humor so present in that original film (Note: at the time of this writing, I have yet to see Ghostbusters II, so any commentary on the previous films in the franchise will be limited to my knowledge of the original movie). I can begin to understand the inherent obsession with the flick, but I can't begin to comprehend the impressive and disheartening recoil from the collective interwebs when this new reboot was announced to have been cast with women in the central roles. I don't think I'm making much of a stretch when I say I'm sure the same people who publicly denounced last year's Mad Max just might be the ones attempting to silence this new Ghostbusters entry. 

While I won't go so far as to say that this new installment outperforms the original classic, it still proves to be a fun and entertaining film that manages to distance itself from its predecessor while still holding onto some of the themes and ideas set in place back in the '80s. This new Ghostbusters is inherently a remake, traveling a path familiar to the one we've already seen, but the filmmakers do a pleasant job of updating certain scenarios to make the film feel as though it belongs in the 21st-century. Sure, we're given a few throwback moments for the sake of nostalgia, and some of them work while some of them don't. Yet it is in its attempts to distance itself from its predecessors that this new film cements itself as its own standalone idea. 

The success of this film was always going to rely on its cast and its ability to create a group of characters that could stand toe-to-toe with such an iconic set of individuals. If this new film does anything dreadfully wrong, it's in its handling of the slew of cameos and brief appearances we see throughout the film, mostly from the likes of actors who appeared in the original Ghostbusters saga. Was it nice to see the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver grace the screen for a moment or two? Sure, but it all felt a tad bit forced. It felt like an unnecessary passing of the torch, so to speak. 

The true stars of the new Ghostbusters film are the Ghostbusters themselves. McCarthy and Wiig have both made careers portraying extreme and out-of-the-box characters, but they reign it in here, instead playing intelligent scientists with more middle-of-the-road personalities. It's nice to see that the two of them can play the straight (wo)man if necessary, and it opens the door for their on-screen colleagues to chew the scenery as much as they possibly can. McKinnon and Jones, both Saturday Night Live alums, bring a fantastic presence to the screen and account for a large number of the main group's comedy. While they both seem to be playing personas they've created and enhanced during their time on SNL, both fit perfectly into the vein of the style of comedy this movie wants to project. Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the show, bringing a level of insanity not often seen in your big-budget comedy; we may very well be seeing a star-making turn with this particular venture. Where this quartet truly shines, however, is in their chemistry. They were able to blend their four personalities in a way that I never truly felt while watching the original Ghostbusters could. This new movie presents a team that simply feels more put-together than its predecessors. 

While the main cast does a fantastic job of crafting believable characters, the supporting cast doesn't quite hit the same mark. Aside from Chris Hemsworth playing against type as a lovable moron, no one really gets close to the overall effectiveness of our four protagonists. Andy Garcia feels incredibly miscast as the lackadaisical Mayor of New York who spends the entire film attempting to downplay and deny the existence of a paranormal menace wandering his streets. Neil Casey, who stars as the film's central villain, suffers from a lack of clever writing that leaves his character feeling like a stereotypical genius-gone-bad. Cecily Strong brings the audience a one-note performance as the Mayor's PR woman, and though she gets close, she can't quite stand toe-to-toe with the likes of McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones. In a way, the sub-par performances from the rest of the cast only helps bolster the strengths of our protagonists, letting them truly take the film's reigns. 

In the same way that I'm not a fan of the dry comedy of the 1980s, I'm also a little opposed to the current vein of comedy in the twenty-first century. This brand of comedy, which has its origins around the turn of the millennium, focuses on taking a joke as far as it possibly can in the hopes of generating just a little more laughter at the expense of one continued punchline. To me, it feels a bit like overkill, and unfortunately, Ghostbusters mostly falls in line with that particular style for most of its runtime. While there are a number of solid jokes, including one Jaws reference that warmed my heart, the overall level of comedy feels like more of the same when it comes to the current status quo. If the film does anything well comedically, it offers a very tongue-in-cheek look at the public outcries against it. The film offers quite a few moments that play with the idea that such a large number of people have been publicly outspoken about this film's creation. I won't go so far as to say that Ghostbusters is metatheatrical, but it definitely plays with the real-world issues circling itself. 

Is Ghostbusters a good film? I'm going to lean towards a mostly spirited yes; while a few of its moments don't quite hit their mark (just like the original), there's more than enough here to craft a fun and engaging foray into the world of people who chase and capture ghosts for a living. Is Ghostbusters as good as the original? I personally think it's just as effective in conveying its storyline and delivering its humor, but I would still give the slight edge to the 1984 venture purely on the basis of originality. That being said, I definitely laughed way more during this one than I ever have whilst watching that '80s flick. Is this movie worthy of all the conversation surrounding it? Absolutely yes.

I haven't paid much specific attention to the worries and concerns of the incredibly vocal minority chastising this female-centric endeavor, but from what I've heard in the past week since the film's release, it seems as though a large portion of this group thinks the movie is a feminist, anti-man march. As a man myself, I never really felt all that attacked by anything in this movie, and I honestly liked the different point of view that plays against your typical conventions. Let me give you an example: throughout the film, Wiig's Erin pines for the affection of the hyper-good-looking Hemsworth, but every time she starts to make a move, her three colleagues tell her she's being ridiculous in her fruitless quest. Now let's switch the roles and look at the same scenario from a male-centric film that utilizes the same style of comedy. Guy A would vie for Hot Woman A, and all his buddies would stand around saying, "Yo, you gotta hit that!" Now try to count just how many different movies popped into your head. I think that the female cast in Ghostbusters shows a level of comedic restraint that most male-based comedies haven't shown in years, and that's something that I can appreciate. But never once did I feel like this movie was trying to bash me or my male counterparts. 

I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I think that the individuals battling against the women in this film are scared of three things. First, I think they're worried about how that change might affect their nostalgic attitude towards the original. To an extent, I understand the desire to reconnect with your childhood or adolescence. When Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence hit theaters, I hoped above all hopes that they would do justice for the five- and seven-year-old Shaun sitting in the theater. Ghostbusters hit all of its nostalgic marks through situational moments, and it didn't need the cast to make it happen. Second, I think there's a stigma that women don't have the capability of being funny, but I think we crossed that threshold years ago. Madeline Kahn received an Oscar nomination for her comedic turn in Blazing Saddles back in the mid-1970s, and that's just one example off the top of my head. Ladies are allowed to be and are capable of being funny. Finally, I think these individuals fear the possibility of women having and holding a strong leading role, and by "leading," I don't necessarily mean the "main character." One of the reasons this Ghostbusters works so well is that we're given a group of women who are all highly intelligent in fields of science or local geographical history, and it's done in such a way that the scientific jargon isn't watered down for the audience. So often do we see science-based films that have to explain everything for the audience to understand, but it's always so refreshing to just have intelligent characters on the screen saying what they need to say and doing what they need to do. In the real world, no scientist would stop to explain complex concepts and theories in the midst of of an end-of-the-world situation. By allowing these characters to be our scientists, they become the leaders of the film, the ones who know what's right and what's at stake as soon as things turn sour. Powerful and well-written female characters are hard to come by in Hollywood, but I think that we've finally started to turn the corner. Unfortunately for this set of Ghostbusters, this particular turn coincided with the remaking of a beloved classic, and it opened the floodgates for a slew of men intimidated by powerful women and ready to throw unwarranted sexist balderdash in the hopes of slowing them down. 

At the end of the day, this Ghostbusters film wasn't made for me, and it certainly wasn't made for those individuals dead-set on slander. This Ghostbusters, with its simple and silly premise about a group of people capturing spectral spirits and placing them in a thermos, is for the young girls of the world looking for new heroes and role models. Film has been around since the late-1800s, and in that time, men have been given a seemingly infinite number of heroes from the medium from which to choose. Contrarians will say that women have been given plenty too, but I'm more than sure that that particular graph is skewed strongly in one particular direction. Don't worry fans of the original: you can still have your Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore. Just let the girls of today and tomorrow have their Gilbert, Yates, Holtzmann, and Tolan, too.