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’.

The big stars come out to play this summer


It’s not often that we get all the stars to appear in the box office sky during the same summer, but 2013 looks like it’s going to be one to remember.

Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum (twice), Hugh Jackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon will all grace the silver screen during the 5 month period beginning April.

Even more exciting for me is that so many of them are appearing in science fiction or superhero genres.

Technically, I don’t yet consider Channing Tatum to be an A-list box office star, but who am I to argue against a guy who had three 100 million dollar hits last year? I don’t know if the man can anchor an action movie all by himself, but he won’t have to worry about that in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, releasing at the end of March. He’s going to have Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson for company. This film was delayed by a year for conversion to 3D. I guess it will be a modest box office hit…at least, the fight scene on the cliff looks really cool.

A week later, in April Tom Cruise returns to the scifi genre in Joseph Kosinski’s follow up to TRON:Legacy, called Oblivion. The trailers look good (in fact, each new one has been better than the last), the poster looks good, there’s a supporting cast of solid character actors and the screenplay has been co-written by Oscar winner Michael Arndt…yes, the man who has been hired to write the new Star Wars movie.

In the first week of May, Robert Downey Jr. puts the red and gold suit on again for Iron Man 3. This time, action screenwriting god Shane Black is in the director’s chair and one of my all time favorite cinematographers John Toll (Oscar winner for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall) is the DP…Mr. Toll is primarily an outdoor scenery specialist, so I was initially surprised to see him in the hi-tech metal world of Iron Man. But the trailers indicate that Tony Stark is going to be stripped down to the essentials and on the run, so that probably explains the choice. By all accounts, this promises to be yet another hit for Marvel.

A week later, Leo DiCaprio is back on screen as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the 1920’s set literary classic The Great Gatsby. Mr. Luhrmann is a bit of a hit or miss director, but always a good bet for visual spectacle, so this will be a closely watched effort. If he gets it right, then it will be one of the few summer releases that will still be talked during Oscar nominations season at the end of the year.

In June, we get to see Will Smith and Jaden Smith reunite on screen; the last time was 7 years ago in The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith junior is all grown up now and will probably get as much screen time, if not more, than papa. This is Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s first venture into the world of science fiction, and since most of the world still seems to hate director M. Night Shyamalan, I think this is another hit-or-miss star vehicle this summer.

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Brad Pitt tries to save the world from a zombie apocalypse in World War Z, the movie (non-)adaptation of the Max Brooks’ breakthrough book. Although the movie is a big departure from the book, the direction in which scriptwriter Matthew Carnahan (brother of director Joe) has taken the film actually bodes quite well for its box office prospects. It looks like out and out action, with some pretty hard hitting zombie attack scenes. This is director Marc Forster’s big chance to redeem himself after the Bond misfire Quantum of Solace.

Channing Tatum is back in the 3rd week of June with White House Down…another case of 2 similarly themed movies hitting the theatres in the same year (Olympus Has Fallen releases in mid-April with Aaron Eckhart as President and Gerard Butler as his saviour). In White House Down, the prez is played by Jamie Foxx…somehow with both the White House action films, I feel that the actor playing the President is cooler than the Secret Service guy trying to save his life.

The July 4th weekend brings in a very high risk blockbuster – Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger, where the big star Johnny Depp doesn’t play the lead character but his sidekick Tonto instead. The trailer looks like fun, but Westerns have been box office poison for many decades and it will be interesting to see if Mr. Depp’s charisma is good enough to keep this expensive film afloat. The director and the star have a great working relationship from the 3 Pirates of the Caribbean movies they worked on together. Mr. Verbinski also brought a very edgy sensibility into a Wild West setting in the Oscar-winning animation film Rango a couple of years ago. So, perhaps this will indeed be the Western that bucks the trend.

In the last week of July, we get to see our 2nd Marvel hero of the summer with Hugh Jackman returning to the screen for the 5th time (not including his cameo in X-Men: First Class) as Wolverine. Director James Mangold has directed some great movies in the past like CopLand, 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line; when the script is good, he is great at portraying strong silent lead characters. That’s just what The Wolverine needs after the horrible mess left by its predecessor X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The source material for the new movie is the much beloved 1980’s mini-series from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, set in Japan. As in the case of Iron Man 3, it appears that there will be a ‘back to basics’ approach to this film, which can only bode well for the outcome.

In early August, Denzel Washington appears in a rather low key film called 2 Guns alongside Mark Wahlberg. Denzel’s most successful films have usually had him share on-screen time with a strong partner or adversary, so the formula is at work here again. Icelandic actor turned director Baltazar Kormakur is still new to the Hollywood game, so I don’t expect too much interest in this Action-drama entry at the tail end of the summer.

And finally, to round off the summer, Matt Damon appears as a shaven-headed buffed up mercenary in Neill Blomkamp’s Elyisum, alongside Jodie Foster. I am really waiting to see this film, as it’s a follow-up to the outstanding District 9 and is sure to have a strong undercurrent of socio-political commentary, besides some kick-ass special effects from Peter Jackson’s WETA.

So there you have it…the most star-struck summer in many years. There are too many variables at this stage to say who is going to come out on top of the heap. Of course, on top of all that, we will also have to keep an eye out for Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim which are guaranteed blockbusters in spite of not having any A-list stars on board. The only big name missing from the list above is George Clooney, who is busy directing and starring in The Monuments Men and acting in the risky scifi space thriller Gravity, both of which will come out at the end of the year.

After Earth trailer


What a coincidence. A few hours after my write-up about the 3 post-apocalyptic movies coming out next year, we have the release of the first trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth. I have to say, the trailer is better than the one for Oblivion, especially the opening few seconds.

Here’s the report on the trailer from darkhorizons.com.

The guys working on Elysium must be under pressure to get their trailer out quickly now…

 

And more apocalypses coming in 2013


Further to my post on Nov 13th about apocalypses of all forms being the current flavor of popular fiction and a follow-up post on Nov 15th, I can’t help but call attention to another variety of apocalypse hitting the big screens in 2013.

In these posts, I referred to apocalypses caused by plagues (resulting in zombie and vampire swarms), robots, aliens and gendercide. Besides these exotic apocalypses, we also have the garden variety of apocalypse caused by good old nuclear war and also pollution/ ecological disasters.

I am currently reading just such a book – the classic scifi post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, referred to by many critics as the only true literary masterpiece to have emerged from the scifi genre. The novel was published in 1960 and having reached halfway through the book, I am inclined to agree with the opinions of the critics. I’ll probably write about this book at length once I have finished reading it.

However, the main purpose of this post is talk about the trio of post-apocalyptic films coming up in 2013, all of which feature a largely depopulated Earth ravaged by war or some other form of man-made cataclysm.

  • The first of these films is Oblivion (Universal Pictures), to be released April 19th. The film, which just had its first teaser trailer and poster released last week is directed by Joseph Kosinksi (of Tron: Legacy fame), based on his own graphic novel. The movie features Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays the infamous Jamie Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones). The response to the poster was very positive, although the trailer itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed…a confused. For some reason, it felt like a mash-up of several other futuristic stories, although I couldn’t specifically pinpoint any one element which I could say was copied from past source material. Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to the film…I don’t expect something award winning, but clearly there will be some strong individual acting performances and great visual effects.
  • Next we have After Earth (Columbia Pictures), to be released June 7th and directed by M. Night Shyamalan – his first film since 2010’s disastrous adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Mr. Shyamalan has certainly lost his way – and his goodwill with the movie-going public – since the great days of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. In this case, there is some hope, as the screenplay is by Stephen Gaghan who won an Oscar for Traffic and was nominated again for Syriana. More importantly – from a box office perspective – the film stars the father-son super-duo of Will Smith and Jaden Smith as General Cypher Raige (yes, really) and his estranged son Kitai Raige. Clearly Will Smith has a clear strategy to build up his son’s box office credentials. Young Smith started off in a supporting role in 2006 (at the age of 8) with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness, then held his own with Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid in 2010 and now will effectively play the lead in After Earth. All 3 films are produced by Will Smith and his producing partner James Lassiter and generally speaking, these guys have yet to pick a stinker as a project. So, there is every possibility that Mr. Shyamalan will once again have a genuine hit on his hands.
  • At the very end of the summer comes Elysium (Sony Pictures Classics/ Columbia-Tristar), to be released Aug 9th, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to his masterful debut film District 9.  The film features a very buff Matt Damon alongside Jodie Foster and the star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley. The set photos I have seen indicate that we will once again see a gritty action picture with socio-political overtones like District 9, but I am also looking forward to seeing Elysium, the pristine space habitat built using the Stanford Torus design concept (essentially a hollow, doughnut shaped construct with the populace living inside). Based on the concept art featured here, Blomkamp will use the space habitat setting to accentuate the stark difference between the ‘Haves’ living there and the ‘Have Nots’ living on the surface of a ruined Earth.

As a scifi fan, I will be rooting for all 3 films. I expect Elysium to have the highest critical acclaim, followed by After Earth – provided the critics can get over their hatred of Shyamalan. Oblivion looks a bit generic right now, but will probably benefit by being the first off the blocks at the start of summer and therefore may actually end up earning the highest box office revenue among the 3.

I am pretty sure that by now I have covered every possible post-apocalyptic scenario that can be featured in scifi books, graphic novels and movies. But if I come across a new spin on this sub-genre, I’ll be sure to write about it!