David Ayer aims high but falls short with Suicide Squad


Suicide Squad has disappointed a number of critics as being less than the sum of its parts. After watching it, I tend to agree, particularly since director David Ayer had done two very entertaining ensemble movies prior to this – the well-received World War 2 film Fury and the critically massacred drug-enforcement-team-gone-bad action flick Sabotage – both of which I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. In fact, Sabotage had the kind of vibe that Suicide Squad should have had; it’s an R-rated film with gratuitous violence and unlikable characters – exactly what was missing from Suicide Squad. Not surprising…while Sabotage was an independent production, Suicide Squad is from a large corporation, namely Warner Bros. and I guess some studio execs didn’t have the courage to do with the movie what Fox did with Deadpool earlier this year., i.e. give it an R rating. Even though Deadpool is part of Fox’s X-Men universe, the studio had no trouble making an edgy, R-rated film for grown ups, being quite clear that the film was meant for a very different audience quadrant compared to the kid-friendly X-Men films.

Suicide Squad on the other hand, takes two steps forward and then retreats a step. Instead of portraying a team of hardened death-row criminals, who are in fact the biggest foes of the Justice League superheroes, we end up with a team of social misfits who all appear to have hidden hearts of gold.

Take Will Smith’s character for instance. He plays Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, the world’s deadliest marksman who never misses; an assassin for hire. The writers have picked one particular storyline from the comic books in which Deadshot has an estranged daughter who he cares for. In the movie, this daughter and his need to do right by her becomes a big part of his character. What could have been a really kick-ass anti-hero/ supervillain instead became Will Smith playing some misunderstood guy with a heart of gold. I can well imagine Will Smith or his reps insisting that his character be given these redeeming qualities in order to protect his future box office potential and public persona.

Another key character, the psychotic criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) starts off very convincingly as the former prison shrink who is the lover and accomplice of the Joker. In fact, Robbie has done an outstanding job with the character, but towards the end there is once again an attempt to give her a softer side and some emotional bond with the rest of the Squad, which really jars with her character traits upto that point.

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Harley Quinn and Deadshot are inmates at the Belle Reve Penitentiary for supervillains. They along with a few others (Killer Croc, El Diablo, Captain Boomerang) are offered a partial amnesty by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller in return for joining a black ops team to combat possible metahuman attacks (her logic being that the next Superman need not be a good guy). In fact, as is so often the case with the US government, it is one of their own ‘creations’, the ancient witch named Enchantress, who goes rogue and ends up creating havoc across several city blocks. The squad is assembled under the leadership of an Army special forces officer named Rick Flagg and off they go. After many predictable action scenes, the squad members have a chance to escape but instead choose to ‘do the right thing’ and save the city.

In return for a job well done, they are put back into Belle Reve, with the only hope of getting out of solitary confinement being their willingness to volunteer for a future black ops mission.

The Joker, played by Jared Leto, had promised to make a big impact in the movie. Although he does have reasonable screen time and is chilling in an early scene with a gangster in a night club, the character soon becomes part of the background noise once the action begins.

I also had a problem with the soundtrack, which was filled wall to wall with many recognizable hits from the past. I know this approach was pulled off with great aplomb by James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy, but in general I don’t have much respect for this sort of ‘lazy composing’. I found it somewhat condescending, as if the dumb audience needs the song to understand the underlying theme/ tone/ message of a particular scene.

In spite of all the criticism, I actually found the movie reasonably entertaining. It was, as we Indians say, a typical ‘masala movie’, or in western parlance, a ‘popcorn flick’. Just laugh along at the slightly predictable jokes, sit through the fight scenes that blur into each other and every now and then, you are rewarded with a genuinely well choreographed sequence or smart punch line. In particular, I enjoyed the cameos from a couple of Justice League members.

Overall, a case of too many characters and too much ambition being squeezed into the confines of a two hour film.

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Previewing the ‘Super Summer of 2015’: Part 2


So, what do the other studios have lined up that can compete the Disney’s range of product? Not that much variety, I’m afraid. If there’s one thing we learned from the similarly over-crowded summer of 2013, it’s that audiences can only take so much of a ‘good thing’; in this case the ‘good thing’ is special effects and explosions and big bombastic music scores. Disney has more variety in 2015, with one fairy tale, one kids’ animated feature, 2 superhero films and one space opera. Between Fox, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros., they have 2 superhero films, one reboot of a scifi classic, a fourth sequel to a scifi/ monster classic, a long-delayed sequel to a scifi/ alien invasion classic, an new animated  feature about a ghost and a big-screen adaptation of a very successful, but creepy children’s story. Somehow, I get the feeling that audiences will be fed up with all that rehashed scifi by the end of the summer.

Fox

20th Century Fox gets a jump-start on the summer by releasing a reboot of its Marvel property The Fantastic Four in early March. Fox’s 2 FF movies released in 2005 and 2007 did middling business, but had terrible reviews. It did introduce movie goers to a certain Chris Evans who played the Human Torch and then went on to much greater fame with what will now be a long-term role as Captain America in the Disney movies. As per the complicated rights deals between Marvel and studios which were in place before its sale to Disney, these studios have to keep making movies at fixed intervals otherwise the rights revert to Marvel (which means Disney). So, Fox still holds the rights to the X-Men franchise which is ticking along very well, thank you…and will now attempt to give this beloved and long-lived Marvel superhero group another lease of life on the big screen. I am really looking forward to this one because the film is being directed by an exciting young talent named Josh Trank, who turned heads by writing and directing a low budget superhero film called Chronicle in early 2012. This ‘found footage’ film featured 3 college students who gain superpowers after they investigate a mysterious phenomenon in the woods. What follows is a very realistic depiction of how they attempt to deal with these powers…certainly the very antithesis of the ‘responsible teenage superheroes’ in Marvel’s universe like Spider-Man and Nova. Trank is expected to bring some degree of gravity to the FF reboot and he will be using his Chronicles experience to create some emotional tension for the characters after they return from their fateful outer space mission.

On the 3rd of July, Roland Emmerich will attempt to repeat his success from 19 years earlier when he owned the box office with the alien invasion flick Independence Day. That film catapulted Will Smith to super-stardom and earned about USD 800 million globally, an unbelievable number in those days. The film featured the now-iconic sequences of the Empire State Building and the White House being destroyed and also had a raft of interesting characters played by the likes of Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Randy Quaid, Harry Connick Jr. and Bill Pullman. Mr. Emmerich has failed to recreate that level of success since then. His films Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 all seem to feature a rehash of the same city-destroying scenes. He has been talking about a sequel to ID4 off and on for some years and this summer Fox finally announced it officially. No word yet on whether Will Smith will return, but no doubt the studio execs and agents are hard at work; with the failure of Smith’s After Earth this summer, he may be more open to a guaranteed big pay-day. The film will definitely generate a big opening due to its heritage and the release date, but long term box office receipts will depend on thrills and big visuals…and as I said, Mr. Emmerich hasn’t been particularly original or creative on that front for several years.

Miss Peregrine's HomeAt the tail end of the summer on 31st July, Fox will release the movie adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel by Riggs Ransom which spent 63 weeks on the NYT Best Sellers list for Children’s Chapter books in 2012. I intend to start reading this book soon; it is characterized by the creative use of spooky photographs to bring the narrative alive (the cover photo should give you some idea). News reports indicate that Tim Burton has signed on to direct the film. I feel that the appeal of the film may be limited, but given the setting of a lonely island and an abandoned orphanage, it shouldn’t be too expensive to produce and should have no problem making a profit.

In early June, Fox will release the animated film B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations. This is certainly an interesting premise, about a ghost who has to return to haunting school to upgrade his skills. While Fox also has The Penguins of Madagascar slated in late March, I haven’t listed that as a player in the 2015 summer wars, simply because these characters have plenty of exposure in the Madagascar movies and on their own TV show. Somehow i don’t think there will be that many paying customers to see the pesky avians in theatres.

It’s tough to say which of the 4 films will be the winner for Fox; frankly I have my doubts if the ID4 sequel will actually see the light of day, and Peregrine seems too niche to become a big hit. So, I guess it all rests on the shoulders of 29-year-old Josh Trank to save the summer for Fox with The Fantastic Four.

Paramount

The Terminator franchise has changed ownership over the years and consequently the movies have been released by different studios as well. Somehow, all the companies that have owned rights to Terminator have declared bankruptcy one by one – Hemdale Film Corporation, Carolco Pictures and The Halcyon Company! The rights are now owned by the Ellison siblings, Megan and David through their respective production companies Annapurna and Skydance. Larry’s kids (yes, that Ellison) have been making waves for the past couple of years, co-producing a slate of movies including Zero Dark Thirty, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Star Trek into Darkness and World War Z. Megan Ellison tends to go for the indie award-contenders while David backs the big tentpoles. With Paramount now confirmed to distribute the film (titled Terminator) and Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World) set to direct, they just have to sort out the small matter of having a working screenplay and casting the main parts. It is expected that 66-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger will somehow be incorporated into the storyline!

I am pretty sure that Paramount will announce some other big projects for the summer of 2015, perhaps a sequel to World War Z or G.I. Joe or the next Tintin film to be directed by Peter Jackson.

Universal

Univeral’s Jurassic Park franchise has seen declining grosses since the first film broke box office records and redefined CGI special effects in the summer of 1993. The movies have had writers of the caliber of David Koepp and Alexander Payne writing the screenplays but the thrill of seeing live dinosaurs has worn off due to an overabundance of TV shows like Walking with Dinosaurs (which is getting its own movie this Christmas) and cheap movie knock-offs.

It will be a gap of 14 years from the last film by the time Jurassic World is released in June 2015 and while the brand name is very well known due to the popularity of the original film and numerous theme park rides, the filmmakers will have to put together a really interesting screenplay and characters to squeeze any more dough out of this series. New director Colin Trevorrow has only directed one other movie, the quirky comedy Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. He is updating an earlier draft of the screenplay, so this one is going to be a real unknown until more news filters through next year.

Warner Bros.

Warner Brothers re-launched the Superman franchise this year with Man of Steel…yet another attempt to replicate the phenomenal success of Marvel’s comic book properties. Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy which ran from 2005-12 is firmly set in a different universe/ continuity, so they could not hook it up with Zack Synder’s film. Therefore, the sequel to Man of Steel will now feature a new Batman, which WB hopes will lead to the expansion of the DC Universe and a Justice League movie sometime soon. I am sure that with the recent announcement of a new film franchise set in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, WB execs are breathing a bit easier and don’t need to stress so much about when Flash and Wonder Woman will hit the big screen.

Superman vs. BatmanGetting back to Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel, it created a firestorm of controversy with the recent announcement of Ben Affleck in the role of Bruce Wayne/ Batman. While Mr. Affleck has gained widespread respect as a director recently (Gone Baby Gone, The Town and his Oscar-winner Argo), comic book fanboys have still not forgiven him for his disastrous turn as Marvel superhero Daredevil in 2003. No doubt, he has the chin for playing Batman, and in movies where he directs himself (especially in Argo) he has shown that he can throw off his ‘aw shucks’ persona and play the grim, determined protagonist very convincingly. So I’m willing to give him a shot (although frankly I too would have preferred someone else in the role). Certainly in a Superman vs. Batman film, we can expect to be relieved from the kind of city-wide destruction which became so difficult for audiences to stomach in Man of Steel. Of great interest will be the choice of villain for the movie; I am desperately hoping it will not be Lex Luthor, as I have disliked both cinematic iterations played by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. Since there is no continuity with Chris Nolan’s films, they could bring back the Joker, but I suspect that the producers will not want to compete with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance.

Whichever the villain, it is likely that Superman vs. Batman is the only film that can give Disney a run for its money as the top grossing film of the ‘Super Summer of 2015’.

Answers to my questions on The Dark Knight Rises (SPOILERS HERE)


On July 1st, in anticipation of watching TDKR, I had posed 5 questions (actually 4…I didn’t have a 5th!). Well, I watched the movie yesterday afternoon and I am pretty happy that the answers either matched my expectations or where they didn’t, it was a good outcome all the same.

  1. Will Bane break The Bat? Yes, Bane did break The Bat. But at a different point in the movie compared to what I was expecting. And the infamous, but iconic moment came and went rather quickly. I think he missed an opportunity to replicate the impact from the Knightfall story arc. And I thought it was a bit too easy for Bruce Wayne to recover in 3 months when it took him 8 years to recover from the Two-Face incident (he only started walking straight at the beginning of this movie, using the exo-skeleton for his left leg). Of course, one could argue that the impact of the combined losses of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes made it tougher for Bruce Wayne to recover, whereas on this occasion he was motivated by the need to save Gotham.
  2. Can Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman outshine Michelle Pfeiffer and Julie Newmar? I have to admit, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of Catwoman was uniquely her own…and certainly the classiest one till date. All the others have been enjoyable and memorable, but keeping with the realistic tone of Nolan’s interpretation, Hathaway played it straight without any meows or purrs…choosing to portray the character as a cat burglar without any of the feline backstory or mythology.
  3. Will there be easter eggs or cameos? Well there were none, although a lot of people at the theater waited back in the hope of a post-credits scene. But my guess was right about the significance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character. Although this particular turn of the story is unlikely to be accepted as ‘Batman canon’, Nolan has given Warner Bros. license to spin-off a Robin TV show or movie…although it is unlikely I think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will himself sign on to play Robin in the future.
  4. How much will the movie make at the box office? Well, when the movie finished, for perhaps the first time in my experience, the audience applauded. That’s a good sign! I personally don’t rate it as among my top superhero films…it was more of a high quality techno-thriller, but then that non-superhero-ness of the previous entry The Dark Knight is the reason it crossed over to such a wide audience and became a big hit. TDKR does the same and in fact demystifies and deconstructs the superhero even more, so it will similarly have a very wide audience. However, I believe the movies have progressively become more complex and the plots tougher to follow and this may show up in the word-of-mouth. Also, the reason The Avengers was such a big hit was the fun experience, which kept people coming back for a 2nd or 3d viewing. TDKR is a lot of things, but it is not fun…and that will limit repeat viewings. Overall, I think I will stick to my predictions of a USD 175 mn opening leading to a USD 500 mn (up to 550 mn) final gross in the US and a USD 1.25 bn global gross.
  5. Since I didn’t have a 5th question, I thought I would talk about that other Nolan product which came out this weekend…the first teaser trailer for the Nolan-produced, Zack Snyder-directed Superman reboot, Man of Steel, starring British actor Henry Cavill. First of all, what is it with British actors playing iconic American superheros? Christian Bale, Henry Cavill, Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man), Ian McKellan (Magneto), Michael Fassbender (young Magneto), Patrick Stewart (Prof. Xavier), James McAvoy (young Xavier), Hugh Jackman…ok he’s Australian, but you get the point! Anyway, getting back to the trailer, it is an interesting trailer, immediately bringing to mind the tone from the last scene of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator…very dreamlike, or from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life…very ’60s American. Definitely, with a combination of Nolan and Snyder, both film makers with their unique styles, it promises to be something different. And the closing shot of the trailer is fantastic…I don’t think we have ever seen a sonic boom/ shock wave on Superman before. Got to wait till June 2013 for that one.

5 questions about The Dark Knight Rises…and the possible answers


  1. Will Bane break The Bat?
    1. Yes, I think he will. I remember the visceral shock from seeing the cover of the Knightfall comic series in 1993.
  2. Can Anne Hathaway as Catwoman outshine Michelle Pfeiffer and Julie Newmar?
    1. I don’t think so. Michelle Pfeiffer’s performances as Sukie Ridgemont in The Witches of Eastwick and Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons made it clear that she could play twisted. Haven’t seen anything like that from Anne Hathaway…and I thought her performance in Rachel Getting Married was overhyped.
  3. Will there be easter eggs or cameos?
    1. Unlikely. Chris Nolan doesn’t strike me as the sort of director who ‘plays around’ with his material. And Warner Bros. has so far done a terrible job of connecting the dots of their DC Universe, even though they have the advantage of producing all the DC Comics movies, unlike the Marvel guys who have had to work through studios. It would be really nice to see a set up for Azrael or Robin. And, I wonder if there is more to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character than just being a Gotham City cop.
  4. How much will it bring in at the box office compared to The Dark Knight and Batman Begins?
    1. Batman Begins made USD 372 million globally (USD 205 mn in the US) in 2005. The Dark Knight became a global phenomenon in 2008, grossing USD 1 billion globally (of which USD 533 million was in the US).  TDKR will probably open to about USD 175 mn in the US and will probably end its run with about USD 500 mn. It will make a bit more than that overseas, so will definitely end its run with the highest global gross in the series, probably USD 1.25 billion
  5. Ok, I don’t really have a 5th question!

Looking forward to the 19th of July.

Chris Nolan’s DGA interview: the film vs. video argument and much more.


Ahead of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan talks to the Directors Guild of America on a variety of topics. Here’s the full interview transcript from the DGA site.

I loved reading that Mr. Nolan prefers using film to digital video. This is music to my ears; in recent times I have been quite disappointed with the look of movies shot on digital video, such as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and Collateral. Of course, I can understand that with much of Collateral having been shot at night time, the video format gave Michael Mann a lot more flexibility than film would have.

But for me, the possibilities of film were best illustrated in Saving Private Ryan. Here, Spielberg and his DP Janusz Kaminski (who won an Oscar for his work) use different types of film stock, different film speeds and different levels of color saturation to heighten the intensity of the battle scenes. It’s no surprise that Mr. Spielberg is another director, like Chris Nolan, who continues to use film stock rather than video.

My own dislike for the video format stems from way back to the analog days of 1986 when the Indian partition-era epic drama series Buniyaad  suddenly switched from film to video after the first few episodes. Of course, in the case of a TV show, it is the done thing to shoot in video so in fact, it was the film stock used for the first few episodes which was the exception. Nevertheless, the switch served to highlight the differences between the two formats and instilled in me an enduring dislike for the look and feel of video.

Of course, today when we say ‘video’ in the context of a feature film, we no longer refer to the old analog video format, but instead the digital video format which is far more flexible and can indeed be made to mimic the look of film stock, if put through enough post-production processes. Here is a link to an interesting article on this subject.

But, as Chris Nolan says, why go to all the cost and trouble of making video look like film, when you can just shoot with film? This is the same thought that runs through my mind when I see animation filmmakers trying to make animated characters look as photo-real as possible…why not just shoot a live action film then?

Chris Nolan also talks about his preference for physical special effects, enhanced by CGI rather than pure CGI. Again, I couldn’t agree more. I was so disappointed with the flat video game look of the 2nd Star Wars trilogy or Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Contrast that with solidity of visuals in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Indeed, Nolan’s the man! The Dark Knight Rises releases in theatres in the 3rd week of July. After that, the next time we will see his name in the credits is when the new Superman movie Man of Steel  releases in June 2013 – Mr. Nolan has a co-writing credit on the story.