Category Archives: Fantasy

Movie Review: “Suicide Squad”

Scholars Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron have studied at length the corporatization of radicalism – the process by which the energy of revolutionary movements is co-opted by seemingly sympathetic actors who have little incentive to support destabilizing of the broader social system. Consider, for instance, the mainstreaming of the Che Guevara T-shirt: someone’s making a lot of money off printing those, whether or not they back Che’s ideas. In embracing the surface-level language and cultural forms of activism and insurgency, entrenched interests neuter potentially dangerous phenomena. Consider another example: the invocation by elite politicians of the phrase income inequality. This language assures potential protestors that their voices have been heard and their concerns are being addressed, but let’s be clear: none of these politicians are particularly interested in equalizing incomes. Radical ideas are distilled into a mainstream form to render them inert.

Director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” is the moviemaking equivalent of corporatized radicalism: a bland superhero team-up film, dressed in punkish stylings that aren’t any more threatening than your average Hot Topic store or My Chemical Romance CD. Though flashes of brilliance and wild kineticism periodically peek through the dull facade, any challenging or provocative elements in “Suicide Squad” are crushed down into an easily consumable form that demands nothing of the viewer.

Story-wise, “Suicide Squad” plays things pretty straight. Steely government executive Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits a team of bad guys comprised of assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), longtime Joker girlfriend and psychiatrist-turned-lunatic Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fire-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a bunch of other characters who don’t affect the storyline at all. The villain squad is tasked with a straightforward mission: stop the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) from building a magical super weapon that will wipe out the world. I wish I could say there were some narrative twists in the mix, but there aren’t.

Let’s make one thing clear up front: these characters have a ton of potential, and “Suicide Squad” did some brilliant casting. Robbie is the clear standout as Quinn – equal parts charming and quippy and utterly deranged, and charismatic enough to carry a full solo film if needed. Will Smith also turns in a solid if understated performance as the world’s best hitman who’s just trying to support his preteen daughter. Hernandez is also great as Diablo, who turns out to be one of the film’s most interesting breakout characters and the only one who bears out a developed moral arc.

It’s quite tragic that “Suicide Squad” has such great material to work with, and simply opts for an incredibly mundane save-the-world storyline.

For its first half hour, “Suicide Squad” embraces the delightful, neon-drenched, Arkham-meets-Saints-Row trashiness that keeps the film compulsively watchable. These characters are so outlandish, and have such deviant backstories, that simply watching them chat with each other feels like a guilty pleasure. Black humor, not action or Marvel-style snark, is what “Suicide Squad” has going for it…and unfortunately, this ethos never comes through as much as it should (there’s a wonderful pre-climax scene in which the villain gang shoots the breeze at an abandoned bar, but it’s the only one of its kind).

For that matter, the film’s cannon-fodder antagonists aren’t human beings, but crumbly zombie-creatures that look like they’re made of asphalt. While this was clearly done in an attempt to make the villains “not actually that bad” and keep the film PG-13, it feels disingenuous and untrue to the narrative. For that matter, none of these antiheroes do much that’s particularly culpable: if these guys are Gotham City’s “worst of the worst,” things must be pretty great in Gotham.

The marketing of “Suicide Squad” has highlighted its brilliantly chromatic color palette – wild acidic greens and reds and purples (in one mesmerizing dream sequence, Harley embraces the Joker in a vat of shimmering chemicals, and their entwined bodies are surrounded by swirling red and blue patterns). It’s a crying shame that this hallucinogenic wackiness only comes through in fits and starts: most of the film, like “Batman v Superman” relies on a dark, desaturated color palette as the Squad makes their way across an abandoned city. Even the final battle suffers from this problem: the showdown is shot through a cloud of dust that makes the action almost incomprehensible.

The missed opportunities keep piling up. In a clear attempt to ape Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Ayer throws in countless pop-music cues. Contra “Guardians,” these song choices hit like lead balloons. They range from breathtakingly obvious to the point of insultingly stupid (does a shaven-headed Will Smith really need Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” as his theme song?), to the merely cliche (Eminem’s “Without Me”). Ayer gratuitously squanders the opportunity to throw in something more unique – why not use something by Against Me! or The Offspring? – and ends up looking lazy.

Finally, Jared Leto’s much-ballyhooed Joker is one of the film’s worst elements. Creepy tattoos aside, he comes off not as menacing, but as a drug-addled teenager who could use a stint in juvie. Lying on the carpet in a room surrounded by knives doesn’t make someone menacing: it makes their mother refer them to psychiatric counseling. Past Joker portrayals by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger coupled chaotic energy with a fierce sense of brilliance and calculation, which made their characters worthy rivals for the World’s Greatest Detective (after all, Heath Ledger’s Joker was out to prove a very specific moral point about the corruption of man vis-a-vis Batman). By contrast, Leto’s Joker simply doesn’t seem especially intelligent. He has nothing to say, nothing he stands for, nothing he’s trying to prove…at bottom, he’s nothing but a thug with bad skin and hair. And there’s simply nothing scary or enthralling in that.

“Suicide Squad” demanded and deserved an R rating, a truly bizarre storyline, and a small cast of characters. It got none of those things.

That being said, “Suicide Squad” does a lot of things quite well. The acting is generally good, the worldbuilding is better than anything in “Man of Steel” or “Batman v Superman,” and the aesthetic choices – when they’re allowed to shine – are mesmerizing. In the right hands, this could lay the groundwork for some really strong material…if the radical flourishes in “Suicide Squad” are allowed to liberate themselves from corporatized constraints.

In a post-“Dark Knight” era, it’s easy to forget that in the grand canon of DC storytelling, Christopher Nolan’s ultra-grounded approach is the actual outlier. Most Batman stories have a touch of the pulpy and the weird – Poison Ivy, Man-Bat, and Mr. Freeze would have no place in the Nolanverse, but plenty of intellectually compelling stories involving them could be told by a gifted artist. If you take Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and a few other component pieces on their own terms, “Suicide Squad” plants the seeds for some really magical and offbeat Batman storytelling (and yes, Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader does show up in a couple of satisfying cameo scenes).

At the end of the day, DC needs to stop rushing headlong towards its “Avengers”-wannabe project and take a long, slow breath. Everything doesn’t have to fit neatly into the standard superhero-film formula: when you’re building a world with this much potential for creative richness and wild artistry, viewers don’t want to see a Marvel-knockoff conclusion.

At some point, the modern DC cinematic universe will produce an excellent film. “Suicide Squad” is not that film…but it shows enough potential to keep me watching.

Despite flashes of genius, “Suicide Squad” is a good movie trapped inside a very soggy one.

Normalized Score: 1.6

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Posted by on August 7, 2016 in Fantasy


Literature Commentary: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

It’s been nine years since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” hit stores – and author J.K. Rowling, alongside playwright Jack Thorne, has finally returned to her blockbuster universe with an eighth installment. And while “Cursed Child” isn’t a novel – it’s a playbook – the story is perfectly easy to follow: picking up right at the epilogue of “Deathly Hallows,” “Cursed Child” centers on Harry’s son, Albus, and longtime antagonist Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius.

At first blush, there’s quite a lot to like. Most importantly, “Cursed Child” adopts a more thoughtful and reflective approach to its character relationships than anything previously seen in the series. Indeed, the play dabbles in the stuff of classical Greek tragedies – fathers and sons, legacies and obligations, free will and determinism, sorcery and revenge. Draco – already one of the series’ more interesting characters – manifests as an even more complex figure, and Harry’s struggle to be a good father to Albus is depicted with anguished sincerity. It’s a page-turning read, and has much of the material longtime “Potter” fans crave – words of Dumbledorean wisdom, magical politics, memorable characters, and plenty other similar elements.

But ”Cursed Child” goes in an unfortunate storytelling direction that does the play a great disservice.

Among fervent Harry Potter fans, few elements have proven more problematic than Book 3’s notorious Time-Turner, an inordinately handy tool that allows the user to travel backwards in time for short periods. Naturally, the ability to move fluidly through time strips decisions of their heft: if consequences can be erased by simply reversing time, where are the emotional stakes?

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that “Cursed Child” relies very, very heavily on Time-Turners and their implications to generate its central conflict. And it’s possible to view “Cursed Child”’ as a sharp riposte to Rowling’s critics – in that it doubles down on Time-Turners’ dangerousness by envisioning their dramatic effects. But even conceding that, the story’s narrative structure – which bounces from year to year quite rapidly – feels insufficiently weighty to contain storytelling devices of such consequence…we’re talking about plot points that call into question everything established across seven long books’ worth of content.

In short, as a one-off story, “Cursed Child” simply doesn’t have the climactic ambiance required to justify its insanely high stakes. Introducing more Time-Turners feels like a transparent attempt to extend the storyline beyond its natural lifespan.

This tendency is exacerbated by the story’s fixation on climactic moments from the novel series. Rather than introducing bold new elements into the Potterverse, “Cursed Child” is largely a retread of locations and events from the original books. That’s not to say it isn’t pretty engaging, in a “what if things had gone differently?” sort of way, but it also lends an unfortunate “fan fiction” air to the proceedings. (There are a couple of great offbeat moments – who’d have expected the Hogwarts Express’s candy saleswoman to have a secret identity? – but these are sadly too infrequent).

In reading “Cursed Child,” I found myself reminded a little of “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s little-known sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera.” While as a matter of pure artistic achievement it certainly holds up well, “Love Never Dies” disrupts the post-“Phantom” status quo so much that it tarnishes the whole larger project. “Cursed Child” is the same way: in stressing the fragility of the entire Harry Potter narrative, it leaves the reader with a nagging sense that all those thousands and thousands of pages didn’t really count for much after all.

I really wanted to like “Cursed Child” more than I do – and perhaps this is just because I haven’t seen it properly performed onstage. A lot of the pieces here would have worked quite well independently of the time-drifting storyline, and it’s a crying shame they’re chained to a narrative that leaves “Deathly Hallows” feeling hollow in hindsight.

“Cursed Child” certainly isn’t bad – there’s a refreshing emotional maturity here that the “Potter” novels didn’t always possess – but on net, it represents a distinct failure to improve upon its stellar predecessors. The play’s glib approach to high-stakes scenarios has, ironically, the effect of lowering the stakes of the earlier volumes: if everything in the past can be upended with super-magic, did the struggles of the past matter much at all? And that is an unfortunate thematic undercurrent that overshadows the many ways in which “Cursed Child” succeeds.

J.K. Rowling is certainly no George Lucas – a quick perusal of her Ilvermorny-themed material online, which deals with the origins of an American magical school, reveals that her storytelling genius is alive and well – but “Cursed Child” isn’t the sequel the “Potter” novels deserve. Here’s hoping for an official eighth novel that takes things in a slightly different direction.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
An emotionally evocative return to the Potterverse that’s let down by its own central MacGuffin.

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Posted by on July 31, 2016 in Fantasy

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