Category Archives: Half-assed

The Suicide Squad

We actually saw this movie a few weeks ago, and like a good sport, I left it to Sean to review. You may have noticed it’s almost always Sean who reviews the super hero genre, and that’s me being my magnanimous self, giving these films a fair shake by not reviewing them myself. But Sean seems to have very little to say about this one, an indictment in itself, so it’s up to me to save the day.

I didn’t like it.

I really didn’t care for the first one either. I thought the music was both the best and worst part, the constant stream of pop songs perking me up, but their overuse indicative of weak writing and poor editing. This one doesn’t even feel as memorably bad, it was just a movie that failed to interest me despite a bevy of recognizable names and some enjoyable James-Gunn-isms.

Yes, the man has a way with manic expression, and away from Marvel’s PG-13 cage, he explodes with violent glee, shooting off confetti cannons loaded with human flesh, painting the scene with guts and gore. And while I welcome the sanguineous spectacle, I wish it splattered an actual story.

So we all know that Belle Reve is the prison where all the very worst super villains are kept, and that shady Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is at it again. When she’s got a job that’s so high-risk only the most expendable will do, she assembles Task Force X, a gang of villains chosen from the prison’s population. They’re promised freedom if they survive the mission, and no one expects them to survive. That’s why they call them the Suicide Squad.

We’ve got some new faces and some familiar faces in this particular squad: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), among others, and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) to keep them all in line. Armed and dangerous, they’re dropped into the jungle of Corto Maltese, an island that’s overrun by enemies, including militaries, guerrilla forces, super villains, and a Big Bad that’s very Big and very Bad, threatening to take over the entire island – and then the world!

Much like the first, the only character worth watching is Harley Quinn, and that’s largely due to Robbie. Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn isn’t nearly as compelling as Birds of Prey’s, but she’s charming, manipulative, and unpredictable, an irrepressible combination, And though Robbie’s boxed in by the male gaze and the narrower interpretation of her character, she still brings a psychotic empathy to the role that’s a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, with such a large ensemble, she can’t be on the screen at all times. More the pity. Once again, DC bites off more than it can chew, padding out the squad with forgettable villains who are ill-used and badly introduced, if at all. Since they don’t care, neither do we, which is the most disappointing part of this film. The first Suicide Squad didn’t get this right either, but considering James Gunn was able to galvanize a bunch of unknown galaxy-guarding losers into crowd-pleasing heroes, we hoped he’d be able to do it again. No doubt DC was counting on him for this as well, but instead this movie doubles down on stacking the deck with mostly filler – not enough to engage the audience, but just enough to steal time from the few things in the film that do work. Bummer.

I think this movie was relatively well-received because we’ve been living in a blockbuster drought. If you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink muddy puddle water gratefully. James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is muddy puddle water: it will do in a pinch. People will drink it during a time of scarcity, but given any choice at all, they’d rather drink anything else. It’s already on its way to being forgotten with other drinks that ultimately flopped despite lots of hype and fanfare: Crystal Pepsi, New Coke, Suicide Squad.

Sundown

Neil (Tim Roth) is just another millionaire on vacation in Mexico with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children when his (well, their) mother dies. Alice of course returns home immediately to start making arrangements, but Neil fakes a passport emergency to stay behind. Why would Neil do that? Well, Neil’s not much of a talker, and believe me, his sister asks, REPEATEDLY. But all Neil wants to do is sit on the beach and drink Coronas out of a never-ending, tourist-priced bucket.

Well, drink beer, and fuck the locals, if we’re being perfectly frank. Bernice (Iazua Larios) in particular. She’s pretty happy to sit and drink beers with him, but the life he left back home is a little more exigent. If he was rich before, he’s now much richer; his wealth comes from some big company back home that’s now officially passed down to the next generation, to his, to him and his sister. Only Neil seems to have opted out. He hasn’t said it out loud, he just won’t engage and he won’t go home. He’s on perma-vacation.

Writer-director Michel Franco knows that life has a habit of catching up with us all. Even money can’t insulate us forever. Maybe money makes us particularly vulnerable.

Sundown features a very cool Tim Roth, maybe not at his Rothiest, but relaxed into a character stripped down to essentials, editing out the bullshit, but whose background is complex and whose life waiting at home is brimming. Unfortunately, I don’t count this among my favourites at TIFF this year. The writing wasn’t as clear as it needed to be; I spent the first bit of the film sorting out its basic elements, and then reassessing the film once I’d made some rather large adjustments. Crucially, it also lacked proper motivation. Man walks away from life. Okay, sure, that happens, in film as in life. But why? Neil is up to his eyeballs in privilege and wealth; has a very cushy life .He’s trading it in for a simpler one. There must be some reason for this, but Franco doesn’t want us to know it, doesn’t even want us to ask. Neil’s life is further wrinkled by the Mexican justice system. You can be sure he’ll call on all his resources to iron this out for him, but while this does introduce some conflict, it fails to culminate in any sort of reckoning.

Sundown is a movie without a message. Tim Roth can’t find meaning where it doesn’t exist. There are ingredients there, and while I admire a film maker who refuses to follow a recipe, I’d still like those ingredients to be mixed and baked. Franco leaves them raw. Sundown is watchable but ultimately pointless.

Intrusion

Meera and Henry have left the rat race of Boston for a small town and their dream home, which Henry, an architect, builds for them. But paradise is about to be, well, intruded upon. A break in rattles the couple, and Meera (Freida Pinto) starts to feel uneasy in her luxurious but secluded home. What’s more, it turns out those responsible for the break in were also suspects in a case of a local missing woman. Meera and Henry (Logan Marshall-Green) might have accidentally built their home in the middle of something complicated and violent.

I think most of us would be frightened by a break-in. It’s very invasive, isn’t it? To feel like someone’s been in the place where you normally feel safe. Meera’s uneasiness grows when it seems that she and Henry are healing along different paths; Henry is ready, in fact insistent, that they move on quickly, while Meera doesn’t feel so confident. She’s a therapist, perhaps more in tune with her feelings, and recently in remission from cancer, so she feels lucky just to be here. Henry was by her side through every treatment and every bad day, so it feels strange to suddenly not be united in this, and issues only worsen as their case gets more complicated.

This thriller by Adam Salky is new on Netflix. It’s a home invasion movie like many before, and many afterward too, I’m sure. They’re effective because they literally hit us right where we live. Intrusion isn’t any great addition to the genre, but it’s fairly benign, and Pinto is lovely to watch. Character in these types of films, especially female ones, tend to be one-note, shrill and terrified, whereas Meera is a little more determined, more pro-active; not merely a victim, but an agent in her own fate. Give it a go if you feel like sleeping a little less soundly tonight.

Nightbooks

Nightbooks is a horror movie for kids – not young kids, mind you, but older, braver ones not prone to nightmares.

Young Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a prolific writer of scary stories, only some recent bullying has him vowing to give it up. On Halloween night he wanders into a strange apartment which turns out to be a witch’s lair, and a prison for the children she holds captured within. Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) is also being held prisoner there, by a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who collects kids. In order to survive, Natacha forces Alex to read her a different scary story every night, a new one that he writes. Natacha is very fussy about her stories; she actually knows ghosts and vampires and the demons, and the details have to be right. An even stricter rule: no happy endings. Alex will spend the rest of his life trying to write stories that please Natacha, and being threatened with death (or worse!) when he doesn’t!

The movie felt a little familiar to me, but I could definitely see kids, who have fewer references than I do, enjoy this as a gateway into horror. Horror-lite. Magic potions, toothy creatures, frozen children, a hairless cat, sleeping witches, poison candy: this movie has pretty much everything a kid’s nightmares are made of. But director David Yarovesky isn’t trying to scare the stuffing out of your kids, just sort of creep them out a bit, things looming in the shadows, light playing tricks on you, that sort of thing, horror’s oldest tricks, still classics, all of them.

NIGHTBOOKS. KRYSTEN RITTER as NATACHA in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. CHRISTOS KALOHORIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021

Nightbooks won’t be any adult’s favourite film but it’ll likely be a popular benchmark for kids, possibly a hit among the sleepover set. Fegley and Jewett are sweet kids and perfectly able to carry this film upon small, slimy shoulders. Ritter lends a little something new to the wicked witch trope, with fabulous costumes and beautiful, unwitchy hair. Most of all it’s nice to see aspiring writers and young creative minds being lauded. What a wonderful thing.

Mothering Sunday

Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) grew up in an orphanage and was turned out at the age of 14 and pressed into a life of service. She works as a maid in post-WW1 England for the Nivens (Olivia Colman & Colin Firth), who lost both sons in the war. Their dearest friends the Sheringhams also lost two sons in the war but have one remaining – Paul (Josh O’Connor). All 5 boys grew up together and were quite close. The Nivens have come to think of Paul as a little bit theirs.

Jane, too, has come to think of Paul as a little bit hers because they’re having secret sex at every opportunity, which are admittedly few. In addition to the upstairs-downstairs wrinkle, there’s also the small problem of Paul’s being engaged to marry (someone else). He’s actually engaged to a woman who was meant to become the Nivens’ daughter-in-law, but now goes to Paul, by default. As you can imagine, it’s not the most romantic of engagements, but he considers it his duty as sole survivor to do what the others cannot.

The movie looks gorgeous, of course. This is what British cinema does best. But it’s also completely morose, unrelentingly gloomy, and unforgivably languid. Grief and loss shimmer insistently in the corners, but the British propensity for a stiff upper lip prevails, and all these grief-stricken parents do their best to muddle on in their big empty homes that feel more like memorials.

Traditionally, before mother’s day, mothering Sunday was a day off you gave the servants to go visit their mums. The title used here makes us painfully aware of so many sad circumstances. What is a mother when all her children are dead? And what is a daughter when her unknown mother gave her up? In her fog of despair, Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she is to have been “born bereaved;” with no parents or family to lose, Jane will never know the pain of their loss. Being motherless is a gift, so says a woman drowning in grief and cynicism, Jane is free because she has no-one to care about. It’s both true and not true (not to mention a pretty awful thing to say, though we’ll forgive her because she’s completely heart broken but trying plenty hard not to let the mask slip). Jane has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, but that leaves her free for a fuckfest with her lover. And though Paul’s just a fortnight away from marrying (this is likely their last encounter), their time together isn’t tinged with sadness. They linger over each other with fondness, naked and unafraid. But Jane isn’t going to find a happily ever after here (nor, for that matter, is Paul). At most, suggests a future Jane, played brilliantly if briefly by Glenda Jackson, it is fodder for a brilliant writing career.

Unfortunately, the film lingers over literally everything, and though there are some brilliant bits, they are too few and too far between to really gather momentum or build emotion. The whole thing comes off as rather cold, an old woman’s memory of a torrid love affair that’s lost its heat.

Mothering Sunday is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Body Brokers

Having done absolutely no research on this myself and relying solely on what this movie has told me: the Affordable Care Act classified addictions as a must-treat disease, creating the opportunity for an economic boom in the health care industry. There are thousands of beds to be filled; the trick is in finding the bodies.

The Premise: Utah (Jack Kilmer) goes to treatment after a decade of crack and heroin.

The Verdict: This isn’t a story about an addict in recovery. This is the story of corruption in the treatment industry. The movie feels, and it’s probably fair to say that writer-director John Swab feels, that treatment centers are a scam. An actual multi-billion dollar fraud that relies on repeat customers so isn’t exactly invested in full recoveries, uses its few success stories to recruit other addicts into empty beds to keep the cash flowing in, and profits from relapse. It’s a scathingly cynical view of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It reminds me of I Care A Lot – which dealt with corruption in nursing homes – in content if not delivery. Body Brokers lacks a certain gloss, a certain finesse, but if you’re in the mood to rage against the machine, this will get it done, and a grounded performance by Michael Kenneth Williams makes it go down that much easier.

R.I.P. Michael Kenneth Williams.

Dreams on Fire

Writer-director Philippe McKie is Canadian by way of Montreal but has lived in Japan for over a decade. A multidisciplinary artist, he has worked in the fashion industry and as a DJ in Tokyo clubs, both of which inform Dreams on Fire, which had its North American debut at the Fantasia Film Festival.

The Premise: Yume moves to big city Tokyo in order to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer. Success is not exactly immediate, so we see her flit between street dance competitions, hip hop classes, anything likely to get her closer to her dreams. But her more imminent need for survival has her chasing cash into clubs where the girls aren’t necessarily dancing. It may not ultimately go on her resume, but Yume is certainly going to learn a lot about herself.

The Verdict: Rhythmic editing really draws us into Tokyo’s underworld, full of unrealized dreams and seedy potential, its lurid lights and colours casting an ominous glow on our protagonist and her compatriots. Bambi Naka is lovely as Yume, clearly a talented dancer in her own right, but willing to stretch and pour herself into the character. Director McKie is perhaps a bit style over substance, but the aesthetic is faultless and the film is never boring.

Beckett

John David Washington’s in the wrong place at the wrong time in this Netflix thriller.

The Premise: Beckett (Washington) is on vacation in Greece when he suffers a tragic car accident, which is only the start of all his problems. Turns out, the abandoned building he crashed into was hiding a kidnapped child, and now Beckett’s in all kinds of trouble, injured and on the run in a foreign country, chased by corrupt cops and determined criminals.

The Verdict: I feared at first that this was simply going to be one of those photo-finish races to the American Embassy: been there, done that. It wasn’t, quite, but nor did it amount to much more. Washington tries his best, and Alicia Vikander oozes enough chemistry to account for his motivation, but the film remains frustratingly underwritten, never giving us enough to fully invest in the thrill, let alone buy into just how quickly Beckett turns from simple tourist to just shy of super hero. His maneuvers are increasingly ludicrous, his luck notoriously bad, and the logic behind this whole farce is something best left unexamined. If you’re in it solely for the chase, you won’t be disappointed, but if you’ve come to expect character and story, maybe give it a pass.

Here Today

The Premise: Charlie is a comedy writer of some renown, having started out on the Carol Burnett show, now serving out the remainder of his career writing for his protégé’s sketch show. Street singer Emma comes into his life at a strange life – dementia is slowly destroying not only his memory, but his sense of self. With his wife long dead, and his children somewhat estranged every since, Emma is a unique bridge between their generations, forming a cherished friendship just when he needs one most.

The Verdict: I liked this film, though I do have some reservations. Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish are both quite good – he solid as ever, she toned down just enough to exist on his wave length, yet still maintaining her own brand and style of comedy. Though this film brought them close in real life, their chemistry doesn’t always work on screen. Worse still, the dialogue is sometimes unforgivably clunky and trite. Yet there’s just something magnet about Crystal here. He is staring down a fate many of us would consider worse than death. The title itself reminds us of the stakes: Here Today (gone tomorrow) – and yet both the film and Charlie face this inevitability with light-heartedness and warmth. The important part, the part that helped me overcome the film’s flaws, is that though he may be gone tomorrow – in fact, we all may – he is still here today, and today is to be enjoyed.

Agnes

Direct from Montreal’s premiere genre film festival, Fantasia, may I present: Agnes.

Sphenisciphobia is the fear of nuns. That’s going to be relevant very shortly. Are you afraid of nuns? I don’t find them particularly scary myself, but there is something creepy about them, stripped of identity and personality, existing outside of society, of culture, of us.

The Premise: A disgraced priest and his priest-intern (priest-in-training, future priest) present themselves to an extremely cloistered convent where a young nun named Agnes is said to be possessed. What follows is a crisis of faith in more ways than one.

The Verdict: Demonic possession is a favoured horror trope. So are spooky nuns. Here director Mickey Reece combines them in his unique way, offering all the genre’s hallmarks, but poking fun of them at the same time with trademark dark humour. Agnes’ young friend and fellow nun, Sister Mary, is witness to the paranormal terrors, and finds that she cannot abide her life in faith. But leaving the convent halfway through the movie causes not just a tonal shift but a new way for Mary to grapple with her grief. The outside world isn’t easy, and whatever’s haunting Mary is sure to follow. Interesting, Reece doesn’t play up the horror. He’s more interested in the character drama that follows as she takes on the inner demons that aren’t as easy to exorcise.

Starring: Molly C. Quinn, Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn, Chris Sullivan, Ben Hall, Jake Horowitz