I completely understand how Babylon is such a divisive movie, and this seems entirely the point of writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land). It’s over three hours long, it’s got a budget of around $100 million dollars, and the entire enterprise just shouts artistic hubris, at best, and petulantly self-indulgent miasma at worst. Any movie that literally opens with a sequence that includes shots of an elephant defecating and a prostitute urinating on her giggling john is clearly trying to provoke a very strong response, and Chazelle’s expose on the early romanticized days of Old Hollywood is, chiefly, intended to revile and disgust. Chazelle’s mission is to rip apart the cozy nostalgia and hazy romance of the dawning of the film industry, to proclaim that Hollywood has always been a cesspool of exploitation and misogyny and racism and greed. The movie wallows in giddy exploitation but also hijacks the illusion of achieving stardom and asks whether or not the lasting art is worth all of the horror and ugliness of the systems that produce it. Babylon is a wild party of a movie with multiple sequences brimming with pure brilliant filmmaking bravura, and it also ends in a way that just might collapse Chazelle’s righteous fury and contempt.
Within the first half-hour, we are introduced to the three main characters we’ll be charting over many years. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) crashes a big house party that would make Gatsby jealous. She’s come to California to follow her acting dreams, which her family and small-town peers would sneer at, and she is faking it until she makes it with her boisterous personality. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican-American just trying to get his big break in Hollywood and willing to do whatever it takes to pal around with those in the movies (he is one of our primary elephant wranglers). Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the highest-paid silent movie star famous for his sweeping epics as well as his drinking and multiple broken marriages. Over the next few years, as the industry transitions into the precarious era of sound, each of these three will experience their own rise and fall as they struggle to hold onto their dreams despite the many personal compromises and risks they have to endure to cling to that glitz and glamor.
If Baz Luhrrman’s Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street had an illicit baby, and then it was raised by Boogie Nights-era Paul Thomas Anderson, you might get Babylon. It is a big movie founded on the principle of grandiose excess in all capacities. First off, it’s three hours long though this might be some of the fastest-paced three hours, albeit twenty minutes could have been trimmed here and there. I was never bored once, partly because the structure of the movie is episodic in nature, boasting varied sequences that run the gamut from brilliant to ridiculous to brilliantly ridiculous. From an overall thematic standpoint, there isn’t really any subtlety or nuance. The movie is like having the director screaming in your face. Chazelle’s depiction of Old Hollywood is one of direct shame and wanton hedonism, and beyond the obvious “It was always this bad” moralizing there isn’t much more that Chazelle has to articulate, except for a strangely misguided and arguably antithetical coda (more on this later). For almost three hours, Chazelle holds the industry accountable on their buzzy, boozy wavelength of high energy and thrills.
Babylon is presented as a big raucous party where you’re happy to be a guest but also glad you can go home to your own bed. This isn’t a movie that excuses the misdeeds of its degenerates and hangers-on and the systems of power that enshrined the horrible to be even more horrible. Babylon pushes its many characters into uncomfortable questions of what they’re willing to compromise for fame. It’s a process of assimilation and people cutting free their identity, which can be liberating for some and lacerating for others. A significant supporting character is a black jazz musician who begins to find success in the pictures. Then the producers want the man to blacken his face even further, and the ensuing anguish and rage is so palpable that it’s hard to think Chazelle has anything but seething contempt for the sordid history of his own industry. Babylon yearns to be shocking, to be provocative, and it does so easily, sometimes too easily. It’s exceptionally gratuitous to a fault, cavorting with topless women, drug binges, abrupt and callous violence, and all sorts of lewd bacchanalia. Chazelle is demystifying Hollywood’s self-serious fable, and he’s doing so by boldly leaving no bodily fluid untapped and un-splattered.
This movie is a lot, and it’s also offering very little on a thematic level, so I can understand why plenty of people would hold their repulsed noses and say, “Not for me.” I get it. Not everyone is going to want to watch Nellie projectile vomit onto a hoity-toity snob during a party where she’s trying to re-frame her coarse, lower class identity to be accepted by the brain-dead social elites. Hollywood is presented as a vehicle for self-actualization, but the system is relentless and unforgiving, and even those who achieve success are never afforded a secure perch. The careless regard for safety in Old Hollywood is highlighted by memorable moments, like when a Medieval war epic is halted as a dead extra has a spear sticking straight up in his gut. The crew argue that the man was known as a drinker and therefore it must have been an accident of his own doing. And then the movie skips back to filming, this man’s passing given no more passing thought. And yet there are thousands arriving every year to work themselves senselessly to be the next awaiting sacrifice for this town. It’s an industry built upon human suffering and I can see how many viewers would view the many examples as wallowing in the muck for titillation. The difference for me is that I don’t feel like Chazelle is glorifying any of these antics…
…With the exception of the ending, of which I will discuss more in depth because I find it to be wholly curious and in conflict with every fiber of the movie up until this very final point. I don’t think much of this would spoil the movie for you, but if you wish to avoid my discussion of the conclusion, then skip to the next paragraph, dear reader. The film has a very definitive perspective on the movie industry’s sadistic history and yet in the last five minutes, Manny is subjected to a montage of cinematic high points, zooming ahead into history to include such movies as Terminator 2, Titanic, The Matrix, and Avatar, and he weeps. For 170 minutes, Chazelle has taken us along the road of perdition of Hollywood exploitation and degradation, complete with a skin-crawling trip through hell with Tobey Maguire. And then in the final ten minutes, Chazelle says, yeah, but maybe all of that exploitation and death and disaster was all worth it because we now have movies like… Avatar. It’s the conclusion where Chazelle, as my pal Ben Bailey would say, reveals himself as an art maximalist, that only the art remains and only the art shall matter, arguing that all the vile behavior we’ve endured has meant nothing. It’s the opposite of what the rest of the movie has been purporting, and it’s strangely sentimental for an unsentimental film. It feels like a misguided misstep that concludes with excuse-making and moral relativism, which is far queasier than any of the gratuitous sequences of nudity, drugs, vomit, piss, and rat-eating.
The technical qualities of Babylon are outstanding, and when working in such symbiotic symphony, they can be absolutely thrilling to exhibit. The sterling production design, extravagant costuming, and swinging cinematography work with the fevered editing and pumping score, and expertly recreate this era with amazing scope and lived-in period detail. I’m still humming the score’s memorable, jazzy, percussive leitmotifs days later. There are sequences that are simply stunning, such as the first day on a movie set for Nelly and Manny, both of them making names for themselves through problem-solving and scene-stealing, and the revelations and race-against-time brinkmanship are electric. The introduction of sound also creates many complications, brilliantly encapsulated in a comedic sequence where Nellie is trying to adjust to this new reality on a soundstage. It’s a comedy of errors cracked up to a hallucinatory madness by the end. Chazelle also delivers one of the best fart jokes in film history, where Conrad is in a bathroom questioning the appeal of sound and why audiences would want to hear, and as punchline, a giant fart erupts from one of the bathroom stalls. The parties are ribald, with the opening making use of an elephant as a literal distraction stomping through a mansion, and a latter one that ends in a frenzied man-to-snake fight. The entire sequence with Maguire is best left as a stupefying surprise, a sequence that reminded me of the dread-fueled Wonderland scene in Boogie Nights. In my view, even if you found the movie was thematically shallow, the individual sequences are so entertaining and so technically executed that the movie demands to be seen.
I’ve noticed some complaints that Chazelle’s messy opus could have pulled from actual Hollywood scandals, that he didn’t need to make up characters and fictional scenarios. That’s fair, but Chazelle wants to impart an impression rather than a case-by-case history of literal bad men. There are characters meant to resemble clear inspirations, like Fatty Arbuckle (who was innocent, by the way) and the affair of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich or Errol Fylnn’s penchant for underage girls, but I don’t think the movie loses its spirit or bite because it’s not strictly recreating existing historical scandals. It’s still an expose on Old Hollywood without the names.
Babylon is a rip-roaring experience that condemns the history of cinema through the expansive art of cinema, and it’s a wild party populated by sleazy provocateurs and capitalists. Even some of the criticisms of Babylon I can find artistic explanations for, from its gratuitous nature to even the sidelining of its minority and queer stories, perspectives themselves cruelly sidelined and erased from the studio system of Hollywood. Even its overwhelming explicit nature is partly the point, as characters spin round and round, indulging in every debauchery to avoid the march of mortality. Robbie’s high-energy performance is like if a bag of cocaine became a sentient human being. It’s all about sensation and distraction and the many willing to give everything to be part of that, and for almost three hours, Chazelle makes the manic chaos absorbing and horrifying before going soft in the end and arguing that maybe it’s all worth it. Babylon is dazzling filmmaking that will exhaust and nauseate as many as it potentially thrills. I’m glad Chazelle decided to use much of his carefully built artistic cache to make something this extravagantly divisive and ambitious.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s been seven long years since writer/director David O. Russell made a movie. He was prolific from 2010-2015, making four movies, which were nominated for a slew of Oscars, especially in multiple acting categories. Three were also nominated for Best Picture and Russell was nominated for Best Director three times as well. It was quite a vaunted run of mainstream and critical success, with devoted actors like Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence eager to sign up for Russell’s quirky ensembles (it helps when both won Oscars playing Russell roles).
It’s natural to want to take some time off after such a busy creative period, but as the years stretched on, and after the Me Too accountability movement, Russell’s on and off-set behavior gathered more scrutiny and rebuke. His volatility had been known, like his screaming fit he had on the 2004 I Heart Huckabees set with Lily Tomlin. Even George Clooney recounts stepping up to Russell’s bully behavior on the set of 1999’s Three Kings (rumor has it Clooney was the one who released the Huckabees footage). On 2013’s American Hustle, Amy Adams said she cried repeatedly from Russell’s bullying and felt intimidated and isolated. Then there were the renewed revelations from Russell’s own niece who had been transitioning and accused Russell of inappropriate touching when it came to her changing body. Russell even admits to this, though he defends his actions by saying he was given tacit permission, or so he says. With all of this controversy and harassment swirling around Russell, it’s a wonder who would want to continue working with this kind of person. I guess as long as he was producing at his peak level, studio execs would excuse his bad behavior and keep funding his ballooning budgets. Well Amsterdam might just be the end of Russell’s star-studded big studio ride.
In 1933 New York, Burt Berendsen (Bale) is a WW1 veteran making ends meet as a doctor who specializes in veteran care. He and his best friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are framed for a murder and on the run, and the only way to clear their good names is to uncover a conspiracy that leads to a possible government coup. Helping the fellas out is Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse who makes art from the shrapnel she recovers from inside war vets, and a wealthy socialite who also happens to be in love with Harold. Together, the three friends bumble their way through danger and mystery and crazy mishaps.
This is a mess of a movie, a waste of its top talent, and an excess of Russell’s excesses. The director has established a certain style since 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, a movie I still to this day genuinely love (it was my top movie for that year). It’s a style that communicates mania, a nervous energy, and it made sense for Silver Linings Playbook as the movie was following a bipolar protagonist given to uncompromising bouts of mania. It makes less sense with each additional movie, but this improv-heavy, experimental, loose sensibility has become the default style for the director, and it feels misapplied. It leads to Russell bombarding his actors with questions or different requests in the moment, keeping them guessing, and actors have gone forward saying they never knew what they were shooting on the day and the shooting never stopped. This indulgence leads to stories that feel like a lot of elements are sloppily thrown together with the undying hope that somehow it will all come together in the end. With Amsterdam, it doesn’t.
It’s not a great sign when I can say that the entire first hour could be jettisoned. There’s little sense of urgency for far too long, and what is presented feels almost comically unrelated, like even Russell can’t believe his silly characters are in real danger. The uneven pacing creates many dead spaces that feel like an awkward improv detour that you wish could have been avoided. We’re introduced to Bert as a drug addict, and then as a World War One veteran helping other veterans with facial scars and wounds, Bert’s relationship with his pal Harold, then their history in France during the war, then their introduction to Valerie and their kinship, then we have a mysterious death that also leads to a secondary love interest, which requires more setting up of the first love interest and her disapproving family, and then we get police investigating and warning about the first death and then a second murder, this time blamed on our characters, and they’re off to clear their names by… reuniting with Valerie and then bumbling through more characters before, finally the movie presents what it’s actually about well after a full hour-to-80 minutes of movie. It is exhausting and feels like a meandering alternative story that was clumsily grafted onto the Business Plot of 1933. The first half of the movie feels like a slipshod screwball comedy, and then once the particulars of a fascist conspiracy to overthrow the president are introduced, it’s like watching Looney Tunes characters try and foil Adolf Hitler. It just does not tonally work.
The Business Plot is a lesser known event in history, glossed over by the fact that the chief perpetrators more or less got away with their insurrectionist planning. They never did succeed in overthrowing FDR and installing their puppet, but they also did not get prosecuted in the end and most of the media dismissed the scheme as hogwash. It’s undetermined how advanced this plot eventually got but a coup was discussed by a consortium of business leaders. It feels like Russell is applying what he learned from 2013’s American Hustle, which introduced a crazy group of fictional criminals and then, in its last hour, explored the real Abscam criminal sting of the 1980s. I can see themes that Russell thinks are still prescient today, like a dark element desiring to overthrow the U.S. government because it didn’t get its way, as well as the collusion of big business in political king-making, seeking shells that will do what their benefactors demand. The problem is the themes behind this scheme are too serious for Russell’s trifling antics. Think about retelling the insurrection on January 6th but for the first hour it’s two bumbling bank robbers who keep finding themselves in the worst possible situations, ending at the U.S. Capitol. If you’re going to treat the rise of fascism, assisted by corporate overlords, as a serious threat, and something relevant for today, then maybe don’t have most of the movie be wacky nonsense.
Russell’s past films have often glided on energy and in-character authenticity, but this one feels so grasping and desperate. When the master plan to reveal the conspiracy and its shadowy participants is throwing together a big veteran’s show, I was reminded of the movies of young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where the solution to any dilemma was to put on a show. Then at one point the literal Nazis are singing loudly in German and are being confronted by our characters and the good patriotic Americans counter by singing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” and I had to stop the movie and just let out a deep sigh. I think Russell was going for the famous reference in Casablanca, also against Nazis, but it just flounders into unintentional comedy, accentuated by the antsy energy that treats it like camp. There are a couple of spots that I laughed out loud, though I doubt that was the intended response, like watching Taylor Swift abruptly run over by a car. The attempts at actual humor are winding and often lead to little, and the characters feel like more of a collection of quirks than firmly established personalities and perspectives to anchor a movie. What does Bert having a false eye add besides something for Bale to fidget with? What does Chris Rock have to do here? What does Anya Taylor-Joy have to do here? Most egregiously, what does John David Washington have to do here? It feels like Russell just wanted a character for Bert to talk to. The screenplay is overstuffed and polluted with all these minor and underwritten characters that could have been better consolidated.
I suppose you can still have fun with Amsterdam and engage with it on a light-hearted level, smiling as you watch the many big stars having a good time messing around with accents, props, and wacky character traits and tics, like a bunch of kids with a dresser of costumes (maybe it is a throwback to those corny Rooney/Garland kids pictures after all). With other Russell movies, I’ve felt invigorated by the energy and artistry, encouraged to sit a little closer and be more attentive of the character turns, and dig into the actors making three-course meals of their roles. With Amsterdam, I felt the desperation to recreate the success of old patterns but the creeping realization that it wasn’t going to materialize. It’s just a big mess of a movie, not without interesting ideas or moments or good acting, but too much feels resoundingly and frustratingly frivolous. You could ditch entire characters, entire subplots, even entire hours of this movie. Amsterdam cost Disney/Fox $80 million dollars, the biggest of Russell’s career, and only earned a pittance, so I think there is a retraction in due order. Begin with not watching Amsterdam yourself.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Suicide Squad (2021)
When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?
It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.
The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.
The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.
Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.
Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.
As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.
Nate’s Grade: B+
More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.
Nate’s Grade: B
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.
In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.
The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.
What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.
DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.
The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.
There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.
As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.
The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.
When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Serving as a feminist reclamation project, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to re-contextualize “Bloody Mary” in the royal dispute for the English throne. As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is portrayed as an empathetic, open-minded but strong-willed ruler looking to make peace between the two nations, and Elizabeth is portrayed as a flinty, scared, aloof woman that literally tells her younger cousin that she is her better in every manner. It’s a flip of how the two women are often portrayed throughout history, which raises the question of whether history has been twisted from centuries of revisionist and political obfuscation. There are definitely elements in this movie that I know are historically questionable, like Mary accepting a gay man into her royal court of ladies with open arms and a dismissive view of his sexual leanings. I find it hard to fathom that a devout Catholic woman who ordered heathens burned at the stake would be so anachronistically tolerant of homosexuality. If there’s a new theme for this costume drama it’s that women, even those in power, even those who were deemed wicked or corrupt by historians (universally men for centuries), were hemmed in by scheming men who were trying to usurp their power, undermine them, and manipulate them. Mary is thrown into one faulty suitor after another, positioning her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Again, I suspect there is validity to this context but it treats Mary with kid gloves, denying her righteous impulses. Ronan (Lady Bird) delivers a fine performance of grit and grace, but it’s Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth that really misses the mark. She is sadly miscast and seems to shrink in the role. The depiction of Queen Elizabeth is also a disservice for drama and the concluding makeup reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderand. Mary Queen of Scots is an acceptable costume drama told with a little more heat (it’s R-rated for some reason) and a little more consideration to its subjects, but Mary Queen of Scots made me question the voracity of its portraits and made me really wish I was watching the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie instead.
Edit: There are two Marys at this time, Stuart and Tudor, and I have conflated them. In my defense, it seems like there shouldn’t be more than one Mary by name when you’re talking about a Catholic rival who is related to Elizabeth. I’ve left my review uncorrected to further own my ignorance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I, Tonya (2017)
Back in 1994, popular culture was rabidly obsessed with figure skating thanks to Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the “bad girl” who was accused of coordinating an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya’s skuzzy husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), had hired a friend to “intimidate” Kerrigan, and the end result was a broken knee and the world-famous outcry of, “Why?!” I, Tonya takes a look at the players of this media circus and lets them tell their own stories in their own words.
I,Tonya feels brazenly like a Scorsese movie populated with kooky Coen brothers characters. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) cribs from the best and uses all those propulsive camera moves, voice over leading to fourth-wall-breaking, and music needle drops to draw an audience into this crackling crime story. The biggest decision made by screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) is the dueling perspectives of Tonya and Jeff being given equal treatment. They both sit for a series of on-camera interviews and will even interrupt the flashbacks to object. Jeff will recount a time Tonya chased him around with a loaded shotgun, and then Tonya will turn to the camera and argue that this moment never happened. I, Tonya doesn’t tell you who to believe and who to doubt. The account will purposely contradict one another, often demonizing the other party and painting themselves as a larger victim of fate. The movie is steadily entertaining as it mixes moments of light and dark. Tonya breaking the fourth wall to talk about her domestic abuse is another way of showing just his disassociated she’s become to a life of abuse. It turns fourth wall break into coping mechanism. I was laughing at the buffoonery of Jeff’s goons and moved by the relentless torment of Tonya. It’s a story that’s worth revisiting and is given an invigorating sheen of inept crime thriller. Gillespie goes a little too hard with the Scorsese speed ramp zooms and quantity of literal song selections, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment impact.
This is a film about reassessing preconceived notions about who the characters are, what the story exactly is, and where the truth lies amidst all the madness. Tonya scoffs, “There is no such thing as truth,” as if she were channeling the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. This becomes a foundational thesis of the movie as we’re presented with conflicting personal accounts where characters will break the fourth wall to criticize the validity of what they are doing or saying. All of these conflicting accounts force the audience to constantly reconsider what we are seeing and being told. We have to consistently think about the source and how there might be bias at play. As expected, Tonya and Jeff’s differing versions of events paint the other as more knowingly duplicitous. Tonya flat-out accuses Jeff of years of physical abuse, the kind of relationship Tonya’s vicious mother had primed her for. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would say all of her cruel hostility was valuable in an ends-justify-the-means crucible. Through fighting to earn the approval of an abusive authority figure, Tonya became one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, the first to achieve the vaulted triple axle. LaVona shouts that “nice” doesn’t get you anything in this world (her own mother was nice and LaVona became a waitress). People throughout I, Tonya are reshaping worldviews, angling for sympathy, and spinning history for personal advantage. Everyone wants to be a victim, a martyr, or at least the person who was right in the end. By the end, you don’t know what exactly to believe and whose truth is closest.
This was a media scandal that the public gladly gobbled up every new morsel, bringing out the knives to carve up a villain served up on the Olympic stage, but I, Tonya is a very empathetic portrayal that still doesn’t take the edge off of its title heroine. She grew up poor and scrappy and had to make her own costumes for her skating performances. From a technical standpoint, Tonya Harding could out skate anyone, but she didn’t fit into the cookie cutter beauty pageant image of what a wholesome girl should represent. The same bias against her, the trailer trash girl who couldn’t catch a break, was still dragging her down even when her skating was superior to her competitors. It definitely helps to paint a sympathetic portrayal for the woman, and that’s even before the years of abusive relationships, and a husband she may have returned to in order to appear more “wholesome family.” It’s easy to castigate Tonya Harding as a villain, but it’s even harder to see the person inside the caricature that was sold for mass media consumption.
The use of humor has to be very delicate because of all the controversial material. We have naturally offbeat characters doing incredibly stupid things, and then we have a husband repeatedly hitting his wife. This seesaw of tone means that the comedy needs to be precise or else it will undercut the drama or, worse, cross into gross mitigation of abuse. LaVona is a popular source for verbal abuse, and it’s meant to be shocking, but at no point do I think the film trivializes the conditions of Tonya’s childhood for ironic comic fodder. It’s presenting an abnormal treatment of an abnormal upbringing, and the later detours with “The Incident” are highlighting the naturally cracked criminals. These people were not good at what they were doing and were easily caught. The nimwits-try-their-hands-at-crime subgenre is ripe for laughter, in particular Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and his self-professed masterful skills at counter terrorism planning. The Tonya Harding scandal is so inherently sensational and with so many bizarre, colorful characters that to treat it without its penchant of natural humor would be a disservice. Crazy people doing dumb things are going to tend to have some humor value. Where the film falls short is in the realm of media satire. There are a few tasty morsels sprinkled throughout, like LaVona forcing reporters to stand behind a rope line if they wanted to snap her picture, but overall the media satire feels flat. Bobby Cannavale (Spy) feels completely wasted as a Hard Copy reporter/exposition device. He offers few insights and fewer colorful anecdotes. The most pointed the film gets with media commentary is when Tonya looks directly into the camera and accuses each person of being her abuser. It’s a stark turn that stops the action cold, and the audience has to think about their own tacit approval through media consumption. By rewarding this coverage and the easily packaged version of events, have we all played a part in Tonya’s suffering and shame?
Robbie (Suicide Squad) is sensational in the role, eliciting so much emotion that it can instill whiplash. One moment you’re impressed by the depth of her vulnerability and the next you’re whistling at her hard-as-nails persona and sheer tenacity. It’s an unapologetic performance that goes dark places and serious places, but Robbie doesn’t stoop to pander. Tonya wants your empathy but she doesn’t want your pity, and she sure as hell isn’t going to pretend to be somebody she’s not. The tricky part is the question over who is Tonya Harding. With Robbie, she’s a profane firebrand who is impatient with a world that refuses to accept her and her talents. The scene where Tonya is stripped of ever competing again in professional figure skating is a dazzling piece of acting on Robbie’s part. Tonya has sacrificed much of her own life for this sport, and by her own admission she doesn’t know how to do anything else. To see it all go away with the pound of a gavel, she pleads for jail instead as a more humane punishment. This feels like Robbie marking her grand entrance into the next acting echelon in Hollywood.
The supporting roles nicely serve their purpose, with Janney (The Girl on the Train) being the obvious standout. Her hellish mother is overpowering in every sense. Janney is abrasive and fierce and a crutch for the screenplay when it needs something shocking. I do not doubt the voracity of what the Tonya and other participants have said about LaVona, but the filmmakers don’t know when to leave enough alone. There are insights to be had through LaVona’s relationship with her daughter but it’s too often one-note. She’s the angry older woman berating people for shock, comedy, or a transition.
I, Tonya might change your mind about Tonya Harding. She’s definitely unrepentant in the movie while at the same time asking you to view her with an empathy that was lacking during the parade of 1990s tabloids. She’s an abuse survivor who had to claw for every advantage she could earn. You might not like her, or maybe you’ll grow to appreciate her, but you will understand her better. Robbie is outstanding, Janney is highly memorable and perfectly cast, and the direction provides plenty of jolts, from electric camerawork to the energetic propulsion through its diverging viewpoints. The dark comedy works, the serious drama works, and the domestic violence is not trivialized with so many ironic winks. I, Tonya is an unflinching expose that forces you to question the validity of everything. It’s a movie that dares you to question your perceptions while you’re keenly watching. Perhaps twenty years later, Tonya Harding will get whatever she is due.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)
The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Suicide Squad (2016)
After watching the debacle that was Batman vs. Superman, I said it had killed my hope for the larger DC film brand. Thanks to writer/director David Ayer, and by extension Zack Snyder’s ongoing influence, Suicide Squad reconfirms every bad step they’re down on this bad road of anti-entertainment.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is worried about national security in a world where a certain Kryptonian has upended our sense of priority. She wants to assemble a team of bad guys who can do some good. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is placed as the commander of a “suicide squad,” a black ops team of super villains that are injected with devices to make their heads go kablooey if they disobey. Among the ranks is Deadshot (Will Smith), a paid assassin who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the former psychiatrist and lover to The Joker (Jared Leto), an Aussie named Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a guy with the ability to control fire, a human-crocodile hybrid named appropriately Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), a thousands-year-old spirit inhabiting the body of Dr. June Moone, who also happens to be Flag’s girlfriend. Assisting Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked swordfighter with a tragic and mystical past. The Squad is thrown into harms way and have to work together as a group if they plan on surviving.
The tone and structure of the movie is like an unholy marriage of Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy) sense of careless plotting and archetypes, mish mashing tones, and Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) sense of wanton violence, killer cool killers, and militaristic fetishism. It’s a problematic pairing of tone that almost sort of works in the opening twenty minutes as it sets up the various bad guys with their requisite little slices of backstory. Primarily Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the spotlight characters, and it helps that the two most charismatic actors play them. The first twenty minutes doesn’t exactly push the narrative forward in a meaningful way as it involves Davis digressing with an armada of high-energy flashbacks, but it’s almost forgivable. Her pitch to the government for a black ops team of super villains seems credible enough in this anxiety-ridden world, so Ayer has at least started off not quite well but well enough. And then it all goes downhill so fast into a vortex of suck and cannot recover.
It was at the first act break that I knew this movie wasn’t going to recover and get better. You see the advertising has been very secretive about who the true antagonist is for this movie, which is none other than the Enchantress. The introduction of this Jekyll/Hyde character and her power is initially interesting, though she certainly stands out in a world of meta-humans. The problem is that this character is obviously far more powerful than everyone else in the movie, as evidenced by Waller’s “show off” moment having the Enchantress teleport and bring back nuclear secrets from a hostile foreign nation. I think Ayer realizes this and so he quickly, and I mean quickly, positions the character as the Big Bad of the film. Dr. June Moone whispers the word “Enchantress” and she appears, and then she whispers it in her sleep and, oh no, the wicked witch lady is out and nobody seems to have any contingency for this. How has nobody thought about the risk of her accidentally saying this one word? Should she be sleeping with some sort of gag?
Enchantress steals the other ancient idol containing the spirit of her brother, which is just hanging around for some unknown reason, and the two of them are distraught that mankind, which once worshiped them, has moved on. They’re going to destroy the world by making a vague world-destroying machine, which basically comes across as a giant energy portal. The brother becomes the primary villain, a giant heavy with dumb tentacle weapons, and the two of them take human beings and turn them into a faceless army of disposable soldiers thank to the power of Enchantress kissing them. It’s at this point that the movie reminded me of Sommers’ Mummy Returns sequel where the goofy tone and careless development swallowed the movie whole, shrugging and saying, “What more did you want from us?” The villains are quasi-Egyptian gods who want to destroy the world. The last act finally positions the Enchantress as the one to topple, and our anti-heroes are attacking her with guns and baseball bats. It’s just laughable and not in the good way. The entire Enchantress as villain storyline is a swirling CGI mess and her army of faceless henchmen inspire no interest or dread.
You would rightfully think that a movie about a ragtag team of kooky anti-heroes would be darkly comic and have a whimsical sense of fun, much like what James Gunn achieved with Guardians of the Galaxy. I walked out of Suicide Squad dumbfounded and muttering to myself, “How… how do you screw this up?” I think the movie has confused snark with humor. There is precious little that comes across as funny. The characters have some one-liners but that’s about it, and they grow tiresome after a while. Suicide Squad is a classic example of trying too hard; it’s all empty posturing and posing, asking for plaudits about how edgy this cut-and-dry PG-13 movie must be with its mall Goth aesthetic and irreverent sense of good and evil. It tries so hard to be edgy that you can see the onscreen flop sweat. Case in point: the avalanche of music selections. In the first ten minutes or so it feels like there is one needle-drop music selection mere seconds after another, and Ayer chooses a mixture of artists for their on-the-nose lyrics. “You Don’t Own Me” for Harley Quinn especially, “Come Baby Come” just for a scene involving a bat with the choice lyrics, “swing batter batter batter,” a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” because it has “friends in my head” as a lyric, “Sympathy for the Devil” for many obvious reasons, “Spirit in the Sky” when the gang is airborne, “Seven Nation Army” when the gang is put together, and so on. If there were a handful of on-the-nose music selections, it would be passable, but it’s almost like the overzealous music director worked overtime to provide as many selections as possible to cover-up the movie’s empty sense of fun.
No character symbolizes the film’s ethic of trying too hard more than Leto’s (Dallas Buyers Club) rendition of the Joker. Admittedly Heath Ledger’s performance was iconic and cannot be replicated, but Ayer’s script doesn’t even justify the character’s presence. There is no standout or memorable scene with the Joker to help signify just what kind of character he is, how he’s far different and more dangerous than your everyday psychopath. If you called this guy a different name you would swear it’s a different character because they fail to make his inclusion meaningful. We see Joker in flashbacks relating to Harley Quinn, and it’s in these short moments that the character plays best, in particular a high dive into a vat of chemicals all in the name of twisted love. Through Harley, we get a fleeting sense of a Sid and Nancy sort of courtship that could be interesting. However, alone, Leto’s Joker is a wash, intimidating guards with lackluster “crazy talk” and maniacal giggles. There’s a shot of him lying on the ground surrounded by a carefully constructed circle of weapons. It’s a small moment but it makes him seem more OCD than scary.
Joker’s storyline is trying to free his girl from prison, but the larger problem is that Harley Quinn is a worse character when she’s with her “puddin'” Mr. J. She loses her independence and just becomes arm candy and settles into The Girlfriend in Short Shorts. She elevates him and he drags her down. That’s a direct problem with characterization. The Joker is a distraction to the other characters and his small scenes tracking her down do not excuse the detour. Leto snarls and struts but it feels over conscious and dull. There is a better way to use the Joker: make him the target of the Squad. That pushes Harley Quinn directly into the center of the story and provides plenty of internal conflict for her to wrestle with her tortured psyche and sense of adoration for a man who had tortured her and abandoned her. That would be more interesting. In the Snyder universe, we have a Batman who has no compulsion against killing his enemies, so why the hell is the Joker still alive to terrorize? It seems bizarre that Affleck’s Batman would let this guy go unless the fan conspiracy theory that the Joker is secretly a disturbed Jason Todd, a former Robin, was accurate. That would make the character instantly more intriguing and provide some needed depth to what is a shallow character that is all exaggerated attitude. He’s the worst modern Joker but not the worst part of the movie.
The characters are just not that interesting and the far majority of the Squad teammates are meaningless background players. Killer Croc, Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana are utterly useless in this movie. They fill out space and kill some faceless bad guys, but their plots could just as easily been attached to the other Squad members. Katana in particular is another one that feels like she’s been pulled in from a different movie entirely. She’s introduced as this killer assassin and Flag says, offhand to the point of hilarity, that her sword captures the souls of the men it kills. There’s a later moment where she’s swearing her love to the trapped soul of her husband in the glowing blade, and I just couldn’t hold back and started laughing. I’m sure this point is directly taken from the comics, but it’s thrown in without any care, any setup, and its tone is directly conflicting with the snarky nogoodniks. Diablo is given a boring and predictable arc but he at least has a dollop of characterization outside “zany” or “menacing” because he wants to not use his fire-starting powers. These characters just don’t matter to the story, and the actors aren’t given anything close to resonant character moments to make them matter to us. The Batman cameos are completely superfluous as well. There’s no reason that our criminals couldn’t have been brought in from other circumstances. Batman also has a creepy moment where it seems like he’s forcing himself on Harley Quinn to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It’s such an off-putting and curious moment I kept waiting for Bruce Wayne to wake from another dream sequence.
I think back on Captain America: Civil War again and how the filmmakers were able to deftly integrate a bevy of heroes and make them matter, giving each one a small moment to be fleshed out, providing arcs, and incorporating them in exciting and satisfying ways into combat that would let them show off their stuff. Suicide Squad is not that.
There isn’t one good action sequence in this whole movie, and with the Enchantress army of monster goons, it starts to feel like an extended episode of the Power Rangers but with an oversight of firearms. What’s the point of bringing in a bunch of weird characters with super powers if all they get to do is one gunfight after another? Once the Squad lands in Raccoon City, er, I mean whatever city ground zero is, the movie is one long slog to eventually confront the Enchantress. It’s one abandoned street filled with goons to get shot down after another. Repetition settles in and Ayer doesn’t use the opportunity to have his characters do something fun or different. The action doesn’t excite and the characters don’t excite, and everyone trudges, head down, to their dire destination in the sky. It feels like a shadowy warzone without a clear objective, direction, or understanding of the threat. There is one interesting aspect of the action that’s never developed as it should be, and it’s the Squad’s vulnerability to losing Flag. Not only does he have the control to make their heads burst, if he is killed in action then the Squad dies too. Deadshot realizes that the team has to defend Flag and out-rightly rescue him a couple of times. It reminds me of a video game escort mission but Ayer never really does much more than having his characters recognize this dynamic. As much thought is put into the action as put into the antagonists, which is to say little. Some of the action is so poorly edited and choreographed that I just hit my head against the back of my chair and waited for it to be over.
There are a few bright spots in the film, mostly provided by the lead actors. Smith (Focus) is still one of the world’s most charismatic actors even if he’s saddled with the rote “I wanna see my daughter” storyline to humanize his remorseless assassin. Smith relishes his anti-authority figure and settles into a comfortable and appealing groove. Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is delightful and her character’s zany non-sequiturs are more often funny than grating. You can tell Ayer is also a fan, as his camera lovingly oogles her body. It’s a performance that whets your appetite for more Harley Quinn that the movie doesn’t seem to be able to deliver, especially when it starts to go down a route that presents her almost sentimentally. Davis (The Help) does a fine job selling her badass tough guy moments as the leader of the program. I don’t quite buy the “government/jailers are the real bad guys” angle the movie consistently presents to elevate its Dirty Dozen. The “worst of the worst” can’t be all that bad considering we’re working under the mandate of a mainstream PG-13 rating. They’re villains with gooey centers and moral codes.
It’s not at the punishing level of disaster that Batman vs. Superman wrecked, but this is a movie that is plenty bad, and not in the good way, or the fun way, just in the bad way. Even things that should be saving graces for a comic book movie about antiheroes, the fun personalities and visuals, are lacking. Ayer doesn’t know what to do with his overabundance of characters once he gets them assembled and he doesn’t have the visual dynamism of a Snyder. Ayer has talent with writing machismo characters and can even be a fine director of action as he proved with the sturdy WWII tank movie, Fury. It certainly feels like this movie got away from him. If this is trying to be an over-the-top B movie, it fails. If it’s trying to be a flashy and stylish diversion, it fails. If it’s trying to be a subversive take on super heroes, it fails. It just doesn’t work. It wants to thumb its nose at super hero movies and dance to its own anarchic, nihilistic beat, but you never believe the movie’s own convictions. It feels like empty posturing, confusing attitude and costuming for edge. It felt like some film exec pointed at Guardians of the Galaxy and said, “Make us one of those.” The sad thing is that Batman vs. Superman wasn’t good but it was at least ambitious, having to set up multiple franchises, serve as a sequel and reintroduce Batman. Suicide Squad had to do considerably less with the easy task of making a group of crazy anti-heroes as popular entertainment, and it flounders. It’s going to be a long wait until 2017’s Wonder Woman, the next DC movie in their larger plan to compete with the Marvel big boys, and the howls from dissatisfied moviegoers will echo until then, providing a pessimistic landscape for every new scrap of footage and trailer. Remember that the Suicide Squad trailer looked mighty good too and the actual movie is well and truly awful. Sometimes the packaging is the best part and sometimes it’s the only part.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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