The Movies of Fall 2016

small movie theater

Another summer has come and gone for Hollywood and these last couple, slow weeks of the season offers us some time to look back and examine the state of the industry as we transition into the fall.  This summer, unfortunately, is more notable for it’s failures rather than it’s successes.  Little was talked about the enormous success of films like Captain America: Civil War or Finding Dory and that’s only because we expected those movies to do well, and those expectations were met.  Instead the overall trend of this summer was a severe lack of any breakout hits.  Most of this year’s movies either were par for the course, or failed miserably.  We saw some notable flops with Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, Fox’s Independence Day: Resurgence, and Paramount’s Ben-Hur, and some underperforming results from previously strong franchises like X-Men: ApocalypseJason Bourne, and Star Trek Beyond.  And then there was the brouhaha surrounding the controversial Ghostbusters remake that just left everyone sour by the end; the media, the audiences, the unfortunately chastised cast members, everybody.  Ghostbusters underwhelming box office is really emblematic of the downside of hype, where too much talk of a movie can often kill it’s chances of having a chance to develop it’s own identity and in turn it makes us the audience grow weary of a film before ever having seen it.  This summer seems to represent a growing trend towards audience apathy, where some of the more reliable pathways towards blockbuster success just don’t work anymore and audiences’ tastes have changed dramatically.  That, or they’re just so sick and tired of sequels, remakes and reboots.  It’s a concern for Hollywood that not only affects the summer, however, as the fall season carries it’s own kinds of pressures.

While not as reliant on blockbuster films, the fall is nevertheless a major season for the industry.  On one level, you have massive movies set to roll out during the Holidays, while at the same time, this is also when Hollywood positions it’s Awards season fare for the best exposure.  It’s an interesting balancing act that Hollywood must do every year; getting the right amount of hype for their tent-pole holiday films, while at the same time trying to prevent their prestige flicks from getting lost in all the shuffle, so that they’ll be remembered by Awards time next year.  We are now about to begin the Fall 2016 season, and like previous years, I will be running through all of the movies that I believe will be the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I’m certain are worth skipping.  Of course, these are my early predictions based upon the level of marketing and hype I have seen from each film.  I’m not the best handicapper, but I try my best, and my track record is improving of late (all my summer predictions this year proved to be accurate, especially my movies to skip).  In addition, I will also be including the movie trailers for each film I discuss, so you all can witness what I’m talking about and make your own mind up whether each is worth seeing or not.  Hopefully, I will give all of you a nice overview of what to expect in the months ahead; especially if it’s a film that might be flying under your radar.  And with that, let’s take a look at the upcoming movies of the Fall of 2016.



I’m pretty sure that this is going to be a pattern for the next couple of years.  Just like last fall, my most anticipated movie for the season was the relaunch of Star Wars with the incredible The Force Awakens.  Now, releasing exactly a year later, we are getting yet another Star Wars movie that I am completely psyched for.  But, unlike The Force Awakens, which was a continuation of the main saga itself (taking place 30 years after Return of the Jedi), Rogue One marks the beginning of something very different for the franchise; and one that is incredibly exciting as well.  This is the first in what will be an endless string of spin-off movies taking place within the same Star Wars universe.  This is a great idea, because I believe that there is so  much more to explore within this franchise world, and these Star Wars Stories offer up so many possibilities.  Of course, there has to be some ties to the original series, and I like the choice of story that they made to start this off with; showing us the history of the Death Star and the rebel spies who were responsible for stealing it’s blueprints away from the Empire.  The cast for this one looks solid, including recent Oscar nominee Felicity Jones as the mysterious Jyn Erso, as well as some other notable players like Forrest Whitaker, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Mads Mikkelsen, and Ben Mendelsohn as a very flashy Imperial villain.  Also, the tease of Darth Vader making a return here alone is enough to get me excited for this.  My hope is that Rogue One shows us the limitless potential for more stories in the Star Wars universe and that each one is able to stand on it’s own outside of the main saga.  This could be the start of something very good for both Star Wars and cinema in general, but at the same time, I just hope it stands as an engaging journey on it’s own.


Just as reliable right now as the Star Wars brand at the box office is Marvel’s cinematic universe.  Seemingly indestructible at this point, Marvel is still riding high after the success of the huge mash-up brawl of heroes seen in this summer’s Captain America: Civil War.  So what do they do for an encore?  They introduce a new hero into the universe, that’s what they do.  Dr. Steven Strange has been one of the most high profile characters from the comics to not yet have his own movie, and this year he finally makes his long overdue debut, played by Benedict Cumberbatch no less.  It’s surprising that Marvel would approach such a high profile actor to take on the role, given how they’ve often sought out fresher faces in the past (or ones in need of a new career path like Robert Downey Jr.).  But with the iconic cape on his back and sporting the recognizable beard, Cumberbatch looks very much like he was tailor made for the role and I’m excited to see how well he does.  Doctor Strange is a different kind of character altogether from the rest of the Marvel superheroes; working primarily in the world of supernatural, as opposed to the worlds of science and the interstellar that the other Marvel films exist in.  I think that makes this an intriguing new entry for the Marvel universe, because it offers a different shade within their spectrum of storytelling; making this instantly it’s own thing within their universe.  I like the Inception style visuals that convey the multi-dimensional magic that Strange and his peers command.  This promises to be one of this season’s most visually striking films and hopefully it still maintains that same level of fun and excitement that we’ve come to expect from Marvel at this point.  Let’s hope that this universe still has room for yet another superhero worth caring about.


Disney Animation is enjoying some of their best years right now since their Renaissance heyday of the early nineties.  Of course, Frozen (2013) stands as their juggernaut smash hit, but they’ve also seen success with Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Big Hero 6 (2014) as well.  And earlier this year, they made a fortune off of what I consider to be their best film in this post-Renaissance period overall with Zootopia, a movie that is only getting better and more relevant since it’s Spring release.  With this track record, a lot of pressure is put on Disney’s next feature, and I think they’ve got another special one coming in the form of Moana.  This new fairy-tale set within the Polynesian culture looks like a visually stunning treat, and it has the benefit of a great team behind it.  The film is directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, two long time Disney Animation veterans with a legendary track record.  They are the ones responsible for some of the studio’s biggest hits of the past like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992), as well as the valiant attempt to bring hand drawn animation back with The Princess and the Frog (2009) which sadly didn’t accomplish it’s goal.  Here, the duo attempt their first CGI animated film, and hopefully it works out for them.  The animation from the trailer looks impressive, as did the little bit of footage that I saw at last year’s D23 Expo.  Having the always entertaining Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as part of the voice cast doesn’t hurt either.  Hopefully, this continues Disney’s hot streak and gives these long time veterans another classic worthy of their legacy at the studio.


Here we have one of the more intriguing new films coming this fall.  There are a number of factors that make this something that I’m eagerly waiting to watch.  One, director Denis Villeneuve’s previous film Sicario topped my list of the Best Movies of 2015, so I’m interested in seeing what he does for a follow-up.  And two, the premise of this one looks very provocative.  Sort of like a darker take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), this is a movie about the struggles of trying to understand recently encountered alien life and finding ways to communicate with them.  The drama from this premise seems to be drawn from the delicate balancing act that the characters must go through in order to speak with the alien race and bridge the language gap, otherwise one misstep could lead to our world’s destruction.  I like the fact that this is a film about avoiding conflicts through an exchange of knowledge and working through differences by avoiding easily triggered misunderstandings.  Like Sicario and some of Villeneuve’s previous work, this is a very visually striking movie.  The alien ships have a unique feel to them that doesn’t seem like they’ve been rehashed from other sci-fi movies.  And like Villeneuve’s other film’s, the tone feels very dark, making this look like another movie that’s going to challenge the comfort level of it’s audience, and in a good way.  With the foreboding alien ships, the threat of destruction if we don’t act correctly, and a neat sense of global scale, this looks like an Independence Day for the smart set.  In addition, it looks like another strong showpiece for actress Amy Adams, who I sometimes feel doesn’t gets enough credit for her talent as a dramatic performer.  Hopefully she’s served well by this movie.


One thing that has pleased me a great deal in the last few years is the resurgence of Michael Keaton’s film career.  Having appeared in the last two Best Picture Oscar winners, the former Dark Knight is an actor once again in demand, and it’s well deserved.  My hope is that this win streak keeps on going and gives him another shot at Oscar gold.  This film may not go that far, but it still looks like an amazing showcase for Keaton’s talents.  This story about the ruthless business man who turned a small California based burger stand into a worldwide franchise called McDonald’s looks like a movie tailor-made for the actor.  Even without his involvement, this is a little known back story to one of the world’s largest corporations that I’m really intrigued to learn more about.  Michael Keaton is not unfamiliar with playing scoundrels on film, but it will be interesting to see if he can pull off the delicate balance between being both loathed and admired within the same role.  This will probably be a more performance driven film than anything, as it does look like your standard biopic fare, so it may not be on everyone’s radar.  But, as someone who’s enjoyed Michael Keaton’s work since childhood, my hope is that this becomes yet another standout role for him and continues his hot streak at the movies.  It’ll also be interesting to see if this will change our collective image of the McDonald restaurant as a whole.  Probably not, but it will be an interesting history lesson nonetheless.



Consider me cautiously optimistic about this one.  Let’s face it, nothing is ever going to replicate the enormous success that was the Harry Potter series.  But, author J.K. Rowling still believes that there is more to explore in the world she has created and that’s the purpose behind Fantastic Beasts.  The question is whether or not we’ll find this new chapter as interesting as the adventures of the boy wizard.  There are some things that excite me about this film.  For the first time we are seeing what the Wizarding World is like across the pond here in America, albeit in a different time period.  This opens up new angles to explore within Ms. Rowling’s universe, and hopefully it’s as intriguing as the many years we spent around Hogwarts with Mr. Potter.  The cast for this one also looks interesting, with Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne playing the key role of Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist searching for creatures of all kinds for his research, as well as other interesting new cast members like Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Kathrine Waterson, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman all involved.  Rowling also marks her screenwriting debut here, which could be a blessing or a curse for this movie, depending on the result.  Rowling has never written a film script prior to this, which could be questionable, but no one knows this universe better than her, so it could prove to be alright in the end.  Also, director David Yates, who oversaw the last half of the Potter franchise, returns for this flick, so the movie is still in good hands.  This could prove underwhelming given what’s come before, but hopefully it ends up becoming a classic just like it’s predecessors.


The timing couldn’t be worse for this particular film right now.  Believe me, I am very interested in seeing this movie, and may end up liking it in the end.  But, unfortunately this is a movie that has left me and a lot of other people worried due to real life controversies plaguing those involved with the film’s making.  Telling the story of a slave revolt led by a literate slave and preacher named Nat Turner in the Antebellum South, this was a passion project for the film’s director and star Nate Parker.  It’s a little known part of American history that deserves a film to spotlight it for a new generation, especially at a time when racial tensions are on the rise, and that’s something that makes me very eager to see this film for what it is.  I also like the fact that Nate Parker takes his title from the racist silent film of the same name from D.W. Griffith, sort of turning that on it’s head as well.  The only problem now is that the movie has recently been clouded by controversy, and not for the content of it’s story.  Accusations of rape have recently resurfaced around Nate Parker, dating back to his years in college.  Whether these accusations are valid or not, it will still affect the reception of this film and that’s unfortunate.  A movie should be able to stand on it’s own, but as we’ve seen in the past, it’s hard for audiences to unload their already established views on the filmmaker in order to take their work at face value.  A lot of hope was put on this film as an Award season favorite, and now it’s uncertain whether this movie will stand out from the shadow of Nate Parker’s past.  Hopefully the work will speak for itself, but then again, time will tell.


Speaking of movies trying to survive outside the dark shadow cast by it’s creator, we have this war epic made by Mel Gibson.  Gibson hasn’t directed a feature since 2006’s Apocalypto, and this also marks his first directorial effort since his now infamous career implosion, involving anti-Semitic remarks during a drunk driving arrest and his profane leaked phone calls to an ex-lover.  Of course, no one is more to blame for his troubles than Mel himself, but there are many of us out there that wishes the old Mel could find his way back and make great movies again.  This could be that movie, with an intriguing story behind it about the only conscientious objector to ever be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after saving the lives of 75 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa.  Pvt. Desmond Doss’ harrowing story is the right kind of inspiring, non-controversial narrative that can help gain Mel some of his audience back, but is it enough?  My worry is that this might be too conventional a movie for the once risk-taking filmmaker.  I would rather see Mel return back to the hard edge material that he had explored with films like Braveheart (1995) and Apocalypto, but then again, he’s probably not in the situation where he’s allowed to take those chances again; at least not yet.  I want to see Mel come back in a big way, and hopefully a lot wiser.  The movie does look beautiful, and Andrew Garfield looks like a good match for the role of Pvt. Doss.  Let’s hope that this is a movie that withstands the scrutiny of it’s association with it’s controversial creator.


Even the fall season is not exempt from Hollywood’s reliance on remakes and reboots.  Here we have a remake of the John Sturges 1960 Western original of the same name, this time directed by action movie director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day).  Now, you’re probably wondering why I don’t show as much contempt for this remake as I did for Ghostbusters.  The simple reason is because the original Magnificent Seven was itself a remake, of one of my favorite movies no less; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).  The fact that it’s getting remade again is less insulting to me, because it’s a story that has been done many times before, and overall was handled pretty respectfully.  But, even still, it is a remake and not an original idea, which still tempers my expectations of this project.  I do like the cast though, with Denzel Washington filling the boots worn previously by Yul Brynner in the 1960 version, and Takashi Shimura in the original Japanese classic.  I also like the presence of the ever charismatic Chris Pratt, still riding high after the success of Jurassic World (2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  The question now is whether or not this remake has anything new to add to the storyline, or for that matter to the Western genre as a whole, which has been pretty dormant in recent years.  If it just comes off as a standard cliched Western, then it’s not going to click with audiences.  But, if it takes a familiar story and characters and experiments a little with the formula, it might make this remake worthwhile.  The Old West is in need of fresh blood, and hopefully good stories stay strong over time.



Oh, what happened to you Dreamworks Animation?  A couple years ago you were one of the leading forces in the world of animation, right alongside Pixar.   With hits like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon, you were pushing the medium forward and appealing to audiences of all ages.  But after a string of failures and disappointing returns on some of your marquee franchises, things have been looking grim for you.  Add to this the recent acquisition by Comcast and the departure of your founder Jeffrey Katzenberg from the company, it is now an uncertain time for you.  Sadly, the next thing coming in your future is a movie like Trolls.  This is a film that clearly looks like the product of an animation studio that has given up.  Instead of making movies that appeal to all demographics, Dreamworks is now just aiming for just younger audiences with this way too cutesy film.  Based on the brightly follicled toy line of the same name, this looks like an over-glorified, 90-minute toy commercial and nothing more.  And given the inclusion of a number of recording artists in the film, making up most of the voice cast as well, this also looks like a desperate attempt to sell a soundtrack album in addition to toys.  Dreamworks used to be above this shameless kind of audience pandering and it’s sad to see them reduced to such a state.  I hope that they can someday get back to making classics like Dragons again, because Trolls looks like a deep decent into mediocrity for a once powerful studio.


Hollywood keeps making many of the same mistakes year after year, and one of those is usually their foolish attempt to try to turn a video game into a movie.  Not that I believe it can’t be done; it’s just that none of the many attempts at it has ever worked.  We are once again seeing Hollywood trying to bring a video game to life with Assassin’s Creed, a stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, who are also involved in the making of this film.  I’ll give it this; the filmmakers are putting a lot of effort into this one, with a substantial budget and an all-star cast behind it.  Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen about this movie tells me that it is doomed to fail just like all the adaptations before it.  Not even the talent of Michael Fassbender can save this one.  The action looks generic, the gritty visual design looks cold and this movie also has the disadvantage of trying to replicate a game experience within a 2 hour run-time.  The reason why games like Assasssin’s Creed work is because they allow the player to move through the story at their own pace and absorb the world their characters’ exist in.  A movie can’t do that and I worry that Assassin’s Creed is going to try to do too much with too little.  The director, Justin Kurzel has some talent as a filmmaker, but he’s working in a medium that hasn’t been kind and I worry that this will be yet another cast-off sent to the heap of bad video game movies.


The appeal of this series is something that I just don’t get.  Based on Dan Brown’s collection of pulpy mystery novels, this series centered around the character Robert Langdon hit the big screen first with the maligned but profitable The DaVinci Code (2006), and continued with the less successful Angels and Demons (2009).  Both starred Tom Hanks as Langdon and were directed by Ron Howard, and neither film represented the best work from either.  The movies, like the books, think they are more clever and provocative than they really are, and in the end just end up being boring.  The DaVinci Code in particular was one of the most over-hyped movies in recent history and I still don’t see what all the fuss was about.  Angels and Demons was a tiny bit better, but was still a snoozefest overall.  Here, Hanks and Howard return for a third installment and it looks like just more of the same, which doesn’t bode well.  I highly doubt that three movies in this will be a series that finally takes hold for me.  Honestly, as far as a Tom Hanks picture worth seeing this fall, I would rather go with Sulley.  This merely feels like an obligation for the respectable actor and director, and nothing more than that.

So, there you have my outlook on the upcoming fall season.  I think that it’s pretty safe to say that this will be a season once again dominated by Star Wars hype, but I am hopeful that some surprises will be in store as well.  Of course, I only touched upon a handful of movies that will be releasing in the next few months.  Most of the films that have yet to come onto my radar just yet are some of those small indie movies that usually get their attention around Awards time, and I will hopefully try to keep up with them as best as I can.  Naturally, this season usually is a strong one for the animation medium, so I’m sure that movies  like Moana will perform well.  The same could be said about it’s competitors Trolls and Illumination’s Sing, but I doubt those will get the same kind of love from critics.  Keep in mind, these are just my initial thoughts before the season begins.  A lot of things can change over the next few months, and some of these movies can possibly exceed my expectations, or fall short of them.  If anything, I hope that this preview has been a helpful one to you my readers.  It’ll be interesting to see how your reactions to these films line up or differ from my own.  This crazy year is almost at it’s end, so let’s hope that it finishes strong at the box office and gives us some fresh entertainment that we will want to carry with us onward into the years afterward.

Collecting Criterion – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

manchurian candidate

Political films are never an easy sell in Hollywood.  Depending on the movie’s point of view, the very message of the movie is going to alienate some portion of the audience, making it difficult to for that same film to become a success.  Some filmmakers make the mistake of turning their films too one-sided in their arguments and in return it diminishes the power of their movie.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a film that has something to say, political or otherwise, it still is crucial to have a strong enough story to go along with that message.  That is what makes up the best of political movies in the history of cinema; engaging narratives that just so happen to also have an important statement to make.  This enables the movies to reach a more broader audience, even if the film’s message differs from the audience member’s own point of view.  That’s how you get right wingers who end up enjoying the movies of Oliver Stone like JFK (1991), or leftists who enjoy John Milius’ flag-waving extravaganza Red Dawn (1984).  A good story can transcend politics, and that’s what is at the heart of great political films.  It could be argued that every movie in the Criterion Collection is a political film in some way, given that they always drawn to movies that have deeper meanings and messages to them.  But, there are some films in the Collection that are more overtly political than others.  They include the social dramas of Greek director Costa-Gravas like Z (1969, Spine #491) and Missing (1982, #449), provocative documentaries like Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 (1988, #258) and D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993, #602), and even silly satirical comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940, #565).  But, if there are easily definable political movies within the collection, it would be political thrillers, and they’ve selected one of the best to join their catalog; John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1963, #803).

The Manchurian Candidate is a spectacularly well crafted political thriller.  It’s also definitely a product of it’s time.  In the post war years, between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, American politics was caught up in a frenzy of suspected Communist infiltration.  With the Soviet Union quickly becoming a competitive world power with hostility towards the United States, many Americans feared that a Soviet invasion was possible, and the fear was only compounded by the rise in nuclear armament during this period.  Thus, began what we know now as the Cold War.  To capitalize on this fear, some in the government like Senator Joseph McCarthay began proclaiming that Communist spies were all around us, both in government and in the world of entertainment.  This then led to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was set up to expose any Communists working in America.  The committee was unfortunately a witch-hunt built on Cold War paranoia, and those who refused to testify before the committee or refuse to name names were sadly blacklisted in the film industry; destroying the careers of hundreds of entertainers.  By the time President Kennedy took office, the HUAC hearings had been exposed as the farcical waste of time that it was and McCarthay was disgracefully censured by Congress as a result.  But, even still, the damage was done and Hollywood would never be the same afterwards.  Movies turned more cynical towards the image of America during this time; presenting a nation that was more fractured than united.  That’s the world that The Manchurian Candidate presents.  It’s a rare film in it’s genre, as it takes a critical view of the Cold War paranoia brought on by the McCarthay hearings, while at the same time indulging that paranoia and letting it play out for an intriguing political plot.  It may be multifaceted, but all of this is what makes The Manchurian Candidate an enduring masterpiece today.

The film begins with a battalion of soldiers getting captured by the enemy force in the midst of the Korean War.  Among them is Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra).  The film moves ahead to after the war, when each of the captured soldiers return home seemingly unharmed.  According to the army’s reports, the soldiers owe their lives to the heroism of Raymond, although none of the existing soldiers have any clear memory of how he saved them.  Raymond’s return home brings him back into the midst of his blow-hard, McCarthay-esque stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his manipulative, power-hungry mother Elanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  They quickly try to capitalize on Raymond’s war hero status for their own gain, but Raymond shows little interest in their political ambitions.  Instead, Raymond grows increasingly distant socially, retreating into a confused sense of his own identity.  This is noticed by Raymond’s superior, Major Bennett, who himself is suffering from psychological episodes, something that’s affecting his relationship with his girlfriend Eugenie (Janet Leigh).  After doing some detective work, Bennett uncovers a conspiratorial plot where it’s revealed that he, Raymond, and the rest of their battalion were brainwashed during their captivity by Chinese Communist psychologists.  It turns out that they were conditioned to undertake an assassination plot without ever realizing it, triggered into action through Pavlovian symbols.  Bennett soon realizes that Raymond is the key to the whole conspiracy and that he’s only one trigger away from committing an act that will reshape the American political landscape.  It becomes even more insidious when it’s learned that the mastermind behind the entire conspiracy is none other than Raymond’s own mother, Elanor.

The Manchurian Candidate is one twisted ride of a thriller, and yet it amazingly feels grounded at the same time.  I believe that it’s largely in part due to the direction of John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer got his start in television, which I’m sure help him develop a good sense of economical story-telling.  The Manchurian Candidate is such a taught, finely-tuned thriller that it enables the more outlandish bits of the plot feel natural and engaging.  It also perfectly captures the delirious sense of paranoia that defined that era of politics.  Throughout the film, you are drawn into a world where nothing can be taken for granted, and that even those among you might be out to do you harm.  This is Cold War thriller stuff to the maximum degree, but it gives us a critical eye towards our own political system.  The movie brilliantly deconstructs the manipulation that takes place when opportunistic people exploit fear and paranoia to suit their own needs, just as it had during the McCarthay trials.  Senator Iselin is a very thinly veiled representation of the disgraced politician, and I love the way the film shows how there is little substance behind the bluster and that his presence is merely as a sideshow to a larger problem.  The film gets in it’s most pointed mockery of the McCarthay witch hunts when it’s revealed that Senator Iselin got his number of suspected Communists in the government from the label of a Heinz ketchup bottle.  But the most brilliant element of the film is the way it portrays the effects of brainwashing.  The most famous scene in the movie is the Garden Party, where the soldiers are presented in their conditioned state to a panel of Communist leaders.  It’s a brilliantly edited scene that cuts back and forth between what the brainwashed soldiers see (a Victorian style Tea Party in a garden with friendly old women) and what is actually around them (a modern looking auditorium in Chinese Manchuria).  This scene is a masterpiece of editing, cutting back and forth between the different settings, and even mixing the two at times, without ever losing the rhythm of the scene.  Brainwashing may not be a clearly defined science, but this scene gives us the most vivid sense of what it might actually be like that’s ever been put on film.

The Manchurian Candidate has it’s political points to make, but it ultimately transcends it’s point of view and place within it’s era due to the strength of it’s story.  And no better element makes this a memorable experience more than the performances of the actors.  The performances in this film are among the best ever, and the great thing about them is that they come from some of the unlikeliest of players.  Frank Sinatra, for example, shows that he’s more than just a beloved crooner in show-business; he could be a great actor as well.  His performance as Major Bennett Marco probably stands as his greatest ever; even more so than his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953) .  His portrayal brings a lot of moral fortitude to this every-man soldier caught in a web of political conceit.  I especially love the awkwardness he sometimes brings to the character, which is characteristically unusual for a guy with the suave reputation that “Chairman of the Board” had.   Laurence Harvey is also effective as the emotionally distant Raymond Shaw.  The English born actor probably struggled to find the right mode to play an all-American war hero, but he manages to make it work.  The psychological see-saw that he is put through is also perfectly conveyed through his performance, going between manic and emotionless in a vivid way.  But the greatest performance in the movie belongs to Angela Lansbury as Elanor Iselin.  I listed Elanor on my list of Top Ten Favorite Villains here, and it’s a placement that I still feel confident in.  It’s one of the greatest casting against types in film history, with the normally warm and sympathetic Lansbury perfectly embodying a character of pure evil ambition.  Elanor Iselin is one of the most vividly portrayed and written political monsters ever brought to the screen, and Lansbury is frightening to watch in the role.  Who knew the future Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts could be this chilling a political manipulator.  If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for her performance alone.

The Manchurian Candidate makes a great addition to the Criterion Collection, as it fits in with the label’s already high standards of quality cinematic works, but also helps to elevate it even more as one of Criterion’s more mainstream classics.  Made by United Artists, Manchurian Candidate is a studio film, and one that has been long celebrated by both Hollywood and the general audience for decades.  Given it’s reputation, the film has long been given special treatment, including top notch preservation.  Criterion, who usually has it’s hands full working on detailed restorations of sometimes neglected film stock, thankfully were able to source their image from this film’s original negative, still found in the Deluxe Color Archives.  From this, Criterion created a 4K scan of the negative to create a new digital master for their blu-ray release.  The resulting image gives us probably the best clarity that the film has had since it’s initial release.  The movie was shot in black and white, and was purposely made to look a little gritty, with documentary like graininess, so it’s not going to pop out at you like some of Criterion’s other, more flashy restorations.  Even still, as far as films of it’s era go, The Manchurian Candidate looks amazing.  Detail is excellent, as is the gray-scale shading, making the film feel consistent from beginning to end.  Likewise, the restoration of the film’s soundtrack does a great job of preserving the film’s brilliant sound design.  The echoing effect during the film’s climatic race against time is masterfully enriched by the restoration.  The David Amram score is also nice and clear as well.  It’s another top quality restoration by the people at Criterion and an excellent handling of such a prestigious title.

The extras on the disc are not too substantial, but each one is well worth checking out.  First off is a commentary track recorded by director John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer died back in 2002, so we sadly can’t get any new insight on the film today, but thankfully he did a lot during his last few years to speak extensively about his films, and this commentary was one such example.  Recorded for the film’s DVD release in the late 90’s, Frankenheimer delivers some great insight into the film’s making, including the political climate in which this movie was made as well as touching upon the unconventional casting of actors that really had an effect on this film’s success.  While Frankenheimer is no longer around to discuss the movie, Criterion still lucked out in getting to sit down with Angela Lansbury about her role.  In a newly recorded interview, the now 90 year old actress gives us a very fascinating look into how she portrayed such a memorable villainess.  She is proud of her performance and celebrates the legacy that this film has had in both the world of entertainment and politics.  I especially found her description of what it’s like to portray someone getting shot very illuminating.  Documentarian Errol Morris is also interviewed, discussing the effect this movie had on him as both a filmmaker and as an activist, and how it’s legacy has endured.  There’s also a neat archival conversation between Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and Frank Sinatra.  This is a neat discussion that also let’s us gain some insight from the film’s headlining star.  Also included is an interview from historian Susan Carruthers, who gives some fascinating context to the Cold War paranoia of the era, as well as an examination into the history of post-war brainwashing.  In particular, she acts as a nice reasonable voice debunking some of the more outlandish theories of brainwashing, which this film and those like it perpetuated during the height of the Cold War.  The blu-ray edition also is beautifully packaged in a recreation of some of the Saul Bass poster art made for the film’s release.  Overall, it marks another excellent set by Criterion, worthy of the collection as a whole.

I for one was really anticipating this Criterion release, since The Manchurian Candidate is among my favorite movies of all time; top 10 easily.  It’s a perfectly executed thriller; never once refusing to give easy answers to it’s audience and always pulling us to the edge of our seats.  I also like that it has the audacity to take no prisoners in it’s political targets; condemning political opportunists who manipulate the public with paranoia and Nationalistic furor, while at the same time showing Communist sedition as an all too real threat. And it’s the cast that really sends it over the top, with Sinatra never better and Angela Lansbury showing just how much range she really has. The movie clearly represented it’s time period (and was also sadly prophetic as the Kennedy assassination proceeded it within less than a year), but it’s messages nevertheless still resonate today.  No one probably realized that American politics would turn into such a chaotic world, but as we stand here now in 2016, politics have become even crazier than what Manchurian Candidate could dream up.  You have one candidate for president that’s prone to leaks of information and is regarded as a ruthless, political manipulator with little concern for who gets in her way, while the other is a bigoted, blow-hard, showboating opportunist who is revealing himself more and more to be under the influence of political outsiders from Russia.  Sound familiar?  Even beyond this election cycle, The Manchurian Candidate will still stand alone as a masterpiece for all time.  Hollywood did try to do an update of the movie in 2004 starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, but it ultimately failed because it was unnecessary.  The original is still as fresh as it ever was and will continue to be so.  Regardless of your political leanings, or your interest in politics in general, The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller that will never leave you disappointed.  It’s a very strong addition to Criterion’s collection, and a benchmark title among it’s broad political spectrum of movies.

manchurian candidate criterion


Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters at the LACMA – Film Exhibition Report

Del Toro Exhibit Entrance

A few years back, in the early days of this site, I took a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka LACMA) where they were holding an exhibition of the art and artifacts from the various movies of Stanley Kubrick; an interesting exhibit in it’s own that you can read about in my previous report here.   Keeping in that tradition, the LACMA museum complex frequently holds special exhibitions like the Kubrick one to spotlight the great contributions filmmakers have made to the artistic world in general.  In particular, certain visually driven filmmakers or special artistic movements in the history of cinema are featured.  This year, LACMA’s selected person of interest is renowned Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose body of work and visual style feels quite at home in the company of the museum’s extensive collection of artistic wonders.  Del Toro has made a career out of delivering captivating visual treats; mostly within the world of the macabre and the weird.  His films are vivid representations of a fertile creative mind and it’s great to see such an exhibit assembled to illustrate the cinematic imprint that he has left on the industry.  Unlike the Kubrick exhibition however, this exhibit was produced conjointly with the filmmaker himself, with many of Del Toro’s own personal assets and collections making up a good portion of the exhibit’s artifacts on view.  And also different from the Kubrick exhibit is the way that it is laid out.  Whereas the previous gallery was set up to take us across the progression of a director’s career, film by film, the Del Toro exhibit is built more around themes and motifs; ones that have inspired the director’s creative process over the years.

Inspiration is at the heart of this gallery, as much of the sights on view showcase the process in which ideas are born from experiencing the works of art from a wide spectrum of sources, and how they’ve manifested in Del Toro’s own work.  As stated in the gallery’s pamphlet and on the various plaques throughout, the exhibition is based off of Guillermo del Toro’s own privately owned gallery, where he houses all of his favorite collections of art and artifacts that he’s accumulated over the years.  Apparently it’s a second home that he bought just for the purpose of housing all of his stuff, when his own living space became too crowded, and he has given it the special title of “Bleak House,” named after the famous Charles Dickens’ novel.  This exhibition is clearly modeled after his private museum, and it’s great to see both Del Toro and LACMA collaborating together to give us a little taste of what it’s like to visit this private den of his and see where he draws his inspirations from.  The gallery takes the home interior motif, and allows the different themes of Del Toro’s films to occupy each of the proceeding rooms, each displaying some of the artifacts on loan from Bleak House, as well as props from his movies, original artwork, and various pieces from LACMA’s collection that fit within the exhibit’s theme.  I visited the gallery this weekend to give a thorough report of what I saw, complete with pictures.  And like previous exhibitions on display at this immense museum complex, it’s an experience well worth exploring.

Del Toro Exhibit 2

Del Toro Exhibit 1

Upon entering the front facade on the ground floor of the Art of the Americas Building, you are greeted by the first of what will be many wax figure recreations of different characters from Del Toro’s films.  This “beauty” that you see above is the Angel of Death character from Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), played by frequently used Del Toro actor Doug Jones.  Of course, the grotesque but stunning sight gives you the perfect introduction for what else you will be seeing in the rest of the gallery; a mixture of the beautiful and the disturbing.  Beyond this imposing figure is the first room of the gallery.  Here you can see the visual motif of a home interior clearly visible, as the different walls lining the gallery are topped off with rafters, rising above each hallway, but with no roof to hold up on top.  The first room’s theme is  “Childhood and Innocence,” which is a theme that Del Toro explores in many of his movie, particularly with regards to the loss of both.  Standing center in the room is the second wax figure, this time depicting the character Fauno from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), also played by Doug Jones.

Del Toro Exhibit 3

Del Toro Exhibit 4

The “Childhood and Innocence” room also documents the years of Guillermo’s upbringing in Guadalajara, Mexico.  On the walls, you will find a few childhood pictures on display as well as artwork from many of the different influences that shaped his imagination early on.  Folklore and fairy tales were a big influence on him and none more so than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  A copy of the book is displayed here, opened up to one of the illustrations that clearly left an impression on young Guillermo.  Other works of art displayed include the works of Edward Gorey and Kay Nielsen, both artists who melded darkness and joy very well in their work, which was something that clearly appealed to Del Toro.

Del Toro Exhibit 5

The next room takes us into one of the more obvious visual motifs found in Del Toro’s body of work, and that’s the influence of the Victorian era aesthetic.  Dubbed “Victoriana” this room shows how the period style manifests itself visually within his many films, either overtly or subtlely.  Of course, his most recent film Crimson Peak (2015) is spotlighted here, with authentic props and costumes from the film being displayed.  Front and center is a collection of dresses, worn by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska in the movie.  Across from them, you find a mixture of different influences that came from the Victorian period that inspired many of Del Toro’s different films.  He often cites Charles Dickens as an inspiration, given the author’s sense of detail for the era, as well as his fascination with the dark and macabre in many of his stories.  Del Toro borrowed the name “Bleak House” for this reason.  You’ll also see how modernizing this aesthetic in the “steam punk” style also finds it’s way into Del Toro’s films, particularly in Hellboy (2004), and there’s a neat looking parody of a Victorian portrait featuring the comic book character in this room.  My favorite artifact though is the painting of Madame Sharpe from Crimson Peak, a great prop that illustrates perfectly the fine line that Del Toro walks between the sinister and the silly.

Del Toro Exhibit 7

Adjacent to the “Victoriana” room is a small section dedicated to Del Toro’s other favorite visual motif; Bugs.  Insects find their way into almost every Del Toro film, whether they are the small creepy kind like those seen in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the large monstrous kind seen in films like Mimic (1997), or even the alien kind seen in Pacific Rim (2013).  A cabinet displaying different kinds of bug life research is shown here, as well as different visual treatments drawn during the development of Del Toro’s movies.  Accompanying these is another costume display; this one of the Ghost of Edith’s Mother from Crimson Peak, a creepy looking dress that carries over the insect motif, as you’ll see moths sewn into the fabric of the dress.

Del Toro Exhibit 8

Del Toro Exhibit 9

Del Toro Exhibit 10

The next room covers the theme, “Magic, Alchemy,  and the Occult.”  Here, different influences from many different genres are spotlighted, mainly to show Del Toro’s fascination with the world of the paranormal.  You see a mixture of magic and science mixed in here as well, as mechanical gadgets such as automatons are mixed in with magical artifacts like crystal balls and tarot cards. A giant wooden hand that was used on the set of Hellboy II is prominent here, as is a wax figure of one of Del Toro’s primary influences: H.P. Lovecraft.  Many of the figures throughout the gallery were crafted by artist Thomas Kuebler, and his Lovecraft figure may be the most striking in the gallery.  It’s so lifelike that I almost thought it was a real person standing there at times.  Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror and sci-fi writers of the last century is a favorite of Del Toro’s, and he has stated many times that he intends on adapting the author’s classic At the Mountains of Madness into a film one day.  Also included here is a nod to another of Del Toro’s dream projects; a painting of Medusa found in the Disneyland attraction “Haunted Mansion.”  It’s interesting to see the influence of Lovecraft and Disney mingled together in this room, and yet both are true to the theme of magic that has clearly been a big part of Del Toro’s creative process.

Del Toro Exhibit 11

As you make your way down a lengthy hall to the next room, you see a wall cut out with a ghostly figure staring back at you through it.  It’s another wax figure of one of Del Toro’s creations.  This time, it is the ghost boy Santi from the film The Devil’s Backbone (2001).  As you approach the display, there is a nice effect to replicate the way that the character looked in the movie, with transparent skin and a ghostly flow of blood blowing out of his head.  This is done with the same effect that is used to create the ghosts at the Haunted Mansion, and it’s a nice little spectacle in this gallery.  Perhaps more than anything else in the exhibit, this was the display that was being photographed by the most people.  And like the Lovecraft figure, I’m impressed with the level of creativity and detail that was put into this attraction.

Del Toro Exhibit 12

Del Toro Exhibit 13

Into the next room, we see another huge influence in Guillermo del Toro’s life, and that is Pop Culture, particularly with Comic Books and Movies.  Titled “Movies, Comics, Pop Culture,” this room presents many examples of the different comic books that Del Toro read during his childhood and up through his film career.  The pamphlet states that Del Toro arguably had amassed the largest comic book collection in all of Mexico growing up, and whether or not that’s true, it’s undisputed that his films reflect a sense of love for the medium.  Naturally, Hellboy is spotlighted here, with some of the props from the film on display, including the jacket for the main character, worn by actor Ron Pearlman.  On the wall are various panels of comic book art from some of Del Toro’s favorites, as well as artwork from Mike Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy character.  At the opposite end, there are tributes to two of Del Toro’s most beloved icons in the film industry; stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen and make-up artist Dick Smith.  Harryhausen is represented by another lifelike figure, reclined in a chair, surrounded by some of his skeleton puppets from the movie Jason and the Argonauts (1963).  Across from this is a larger than life bust of Dick Smith, the man behind the amazing make-up work on films like The Exorcist (1973).

Del Toro Exhibit 14

Del Toro Exhibit 15

Del Toro Exhibit 16

Adjacent to this room is a small little section made to look like a 60’s era living room.  Here, you’ll find more comic book artwork from around the world, including European artist Moebius. In the center is a pair of recliners and a table, facing a screen that’s playing a parody of a Mexican horror movie called The White Angel.  It’s a short film that Del Toro made himself for the TV series The Strain, mocking the old horror B-Movies from Mexico that he himself probably grew up with, with a luchadore wrestler fighting off a cult of vampires. It’s the perfect kind of cheesy, which Del Toro likes to indulge in occasionally in his movies.

Del Toro Exhibit 17

Del Toro Exhibit 29

The next room’s theme is fairly obvious, as it celebrates the most singular of cinematic influences for Guillermo del Toro; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Titled “Frankenstein and Horror,”  the section not only celebrates the titular monster, but the overall visceral effect of brutality that Del Toro finds interest with, in the horror genre.  You enter the section passing under a massive recreation of the monster’s head (one of the actual artifacts on loan from Bleak House), and you see numerous visual representations dedicated to the legendary novel and the classic film that was inspired by it.  The highlights of this particular section are a couple of wax figure tableaus devoted to Frankenstein.  The first one shows actor Boris Karloff in the process of having his make-up applied, showing the casualness of the performer before he must transform himself into a monster.  The next tableau depicts a domestic setting, with Frankenstein and his Bride attempting to be intimate, while a menacing looking Dr. Pretorius looks on.  Even as still figures, you get a nice sense of storytelling going on in these tableaus, and they make a welcome addition to the gallery.  Also in this section, you see a cabinet full of macabre, cadaverous artifacts, including specimens in jars, skulls and books on the occult.  Just like previous rooms showed the mystical and magical side to Del Toro’s work, this room begins to show the darker, more violent side of his movies; ones where he fully delves into some brutal imagery and themes.  And it only gets weirder from there.

Del Toro Exhibit 19

Del Toro Exhibit 18

Del Toro Exhibit 20

The next room is entitled “Freaks and Monsters” which carries over the fascination of the grotesque from the previous room.  Here, the gallery spotlights the many creatures and abnormal human beings that inhabit the worlds of Del Toro’s stories.  In the center, you’ll find wax figures of characters from another one of Del Toro’s favorite films; Todd Browning’s Freaks (1930).  The film centers around a group of circus sideshow performers, and featured people with real physical abnormalities.  But, what I’m sure Del Toro found fascinating about that movie was how each of the so-called “freaks” found strength and identity through their physical handicaps and were able to overcome prejudice from all the “normal” people out there.  It’s that embracing of your peculiarities that Del Toro likes to explore in his movies and it’s why the movie Freaks is focused on here.  The same film’s dark atmosphere and macabre sense of humor is also an influence that affected Del Toro, and you see a focus on how monsters and “freaks” are represented in his movies.  Small figures of the Kaiju in Pacific Rim are found here, as is a replica of one of the Mimic creatures.

Del Toro Exhibit 21

Del Toro Exhibit 23

Del Toro Exhibit 22

The final theme room is titled “Death and the Afterlife,” and it should be obvious what is focused on here.  Ghost stories have long been a favorite genre for Del Toro to work in, as evidenced with The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak, but it’s also the fear of death that characterizes many of his ghostly tales.  Here, the specter of death is prominent, with representations of demons and vampires shown vividly around the room.  A cabinet in the center includes nods to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).  Also at the corner of the room is a vivid figure recreation of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, one of Del Toro’s most frightening creations ever in any of his movies.  I found it really interesting that this room is situated right next door to the room dedicated to childhood, seeing as how these two themes of Innocence and Death seem to combine very frequently in Del Toro’s movies.  I don’t know if that was by design, but it definitely fits the narrative for this gallery.  And it’s also fitting that situated right behind the Pale Man are costumes for the character of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, a character whose whole drive in life was born out of the death of her family.  Death and Rebirth, side by side.  That spells out the gallery as a whole as the exhibit comes full circle.

Del Toro Exhibit 25

Del Toro Exhibit 26

But, passing by this finale to the tour, guests will notice a passage leading down to the middle of the gallery, hidden from all the other exhibits.  You pass walls showing artwork from all of Del Toro’s favorite influences, from Gorey to Disney, and even portraits of his literary icons like Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and you finally find yourself in the final room of the exhibit.  It is called “Del Toro’s Rain Room,” and it’s based off of a real space that Guillermo had made for himself in Bleak House.  In the real room, Del Toro had it manufactured to where the windows would be rear projected to look like rain is falling from outside at all times, enhanced by little silicone droplets hanging down the glass plane and thunder sound effects playing in accompaniment.  It’s a nice effect to make it look like a real rainstorm is going on outside, which I’m sure is the atmosphere that helps Guillermo find inspiration whenever he’s working in this room.  Situated in the middle of this recreated space is the final wax figure of the gallery, one of Edgar Allen Poe, looking as content as he could be reclined in a chair in this macabre room.   It’s a nice little added surprise, and I love the atmosphere that it emulates, especially with the digitally projected clouds on the ceiling.

Del Toro Exhibit 27

Del Toro Exhibit 28

I should also point out that in addition to all the different artifacts that the exhibit has from Guillermo del Toro’s different films, as well as from Bleak House, the gallery also makes use of actual pages from the director’s personal notebook.  The notebook in question is a documentation of all the ideas he has put down when he’s been developing his movies.  Written in a mix of Spanish and English, it’s a neat little insight into the mind of a filmmaker.  Even more interesting are the little sketches that he’s drawn within on some of the pages, showing the first ever visualizations of some of characters and creatures that would inhabit his movies.  Various pages are found throughout the gallery, pertaining to that room’s theme, and in addition, there are touchscreen tablets that allow you to flip through scans of the entire book as a whole.  I especially liked seeing what were ultimately the first ever drawings made of things like the Elemental in Hellboy II, or Young Mako from Pacific Rim, or of the entrance to the Labyrinth in Pan’s Labyrinth.  Del Toro’s creative genius is found in that notebook and it’s a great little treat for him to share such a thing in this gallery.

Del Toro Exhibit 24

So, there you go.  I loved this exhibition and would recommend it to anyone, even if you’re not a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s movies.  I understand that his style is not for everyone, but when you see such a well laid out presentation like this, even his detractors will find something fascinating to find.  It’s not just a great presentation of one filmmakers body of work, but an examination of the processes that make a filmmaker who they are.  It’s about the influences that shape an individual and gives them a voice.  Here, you’ll find different kinds of art mingled together and how they came to influence certain films.  It’s as much about the history of art as it is about the history of a filmmaker.  You could create an exhibition like this for many other filmmakers, but Del Toro makes the ideal subject because the confluence of all these influences have yielded such an interesting result in his body of work.  And as a movie fan, I just enjoy seeing cinema celebrated alongside other works of art on display in a museum.  Guillermo del Toro’s exhibition is a worthy addition to LACMA’s long history of standout presentations and I would recommend it to anyone living in the Los Angeles area, or to those just passing through.  The exhibit runs until November 27, so there is still plenty of time to view it.  For a film buff like me, this was definitely worth seeing, and I’m happy to have shared it with you.

Del Toro Exhibit 30


Suicide Squad – Review

suicide squad

There’s a lot to be said about the way that DC Comics is going about bringing their catalog of characters and stories from their many years of publishing to the big screen.  A lot of what defines their work up to now, unfortunately, is that of a company desperately trying to play catch up.  As of right now, DC’s long time rival Marvel is the undisputed champion at the box office, with seemingly everything they touch turning into a smash hit, which also includes sub-tier comic book characters like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy.  DC, hoping to replicate the same success, have up to now stumbled to repeat what Marvel has accomplished.  For several years, DC was doing fine, riding the wave that was Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, but with Nolan’s guidance gone, DC has had to scramble and the results are shaky at best.  Man of Steel (2013) rubbed a lot of fans and casual viewers the wrong way with it’s grim and heavy-handed retelling of Superman’s origins (although I didn’t hate the movie myself as much as other people did; read my review to see what I thought).  Despite it’s mixed reception, Man of Steel did make money, and DC took the next step of building an interconnected universe where all of their characters would interact with one another, just like what Marvel was doing with their Avengers series.  Their first attempt at this, unfortunately, turned into a convoluted misfire called Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).  While not the worst Superhero movie ever made, it was nevertheless a movie that did a terrible job of what it was trying to accomplish, which was to build the foundations on which this cinematic universe was going to stand.  Even Man of Steel defenders like me couldn’t excuse the massive logical problems of the story and the uncharacteristic ways that these iconic superheroes were behaving.

The reason why Marvel is continuing to lead the way while DC is struggling is because DC and it’s parent studio Warner Brothers are making it so obvious that they are trying to copy what Marvel is doing.  There is so much studio meddling behind the building of the DC universe (making sure that every movie hints at future films yet to come) that it’s drawing too much attention to itself, making it feel hollow.  With Marvel, we know that much of their movies have connecting threads, but the studio makes sure that each individual movie has it’s own identity and is able to stand on it’s own outside of it’s place within the grander picture.  Batman v. Superman failed because it felt too much like it was there to set things up for later and not a complete narrative in it’s own right.  It was basically a two and a half hour prologue.  And even at that, studio inference continued to hamper what could have been an interesting action film, with an uneven edit of the movie creating enormous plot holes and conveniences that left audiences everywhere confused and dissatistified.  A lot of the fault rest on the director Zack Snyder, who has more visual sense than storytelling sense, but Warner and DC certainly hold a great deal of blame because they’ve launched this massive undertaking without ever feeling totally committed to it.  There are some things that I think works for them, especially taking a darker tone which does differentiate their universe from Marvel’s.  That’s why I think the best thing that they could do right now is to refocus their cinematic universe on a story that suits their darker character, but is able to stand on it’s own and have more fun with it’s characters.  That’s the hope behind Suicide Squad, but is it the shot of adrenaline that DC needs, or is it a further step backwards?

Suicide Squad is a unique entry in the Comic Book adaptation genre in that it doesn’t focus on a team of Superheroes, but instead focuses on some of their rogues gallery.  As the marketing for this movie has stated, most Superhero films are about Good vs. Bad.  Suicide Squad on the other hand is about Bad vs. Evil.  We are introduced to some of DC’s more grounded, human villains as they serve time in maximum security.  They include master sharpshooter assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and maniacal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); both criminals incarcerated after their encounters with Batman (Ben Affleck).  Also in prison are bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the vicious Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the remorseful fire wielding gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez).  They are collectively brought together under the supervision of Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman), who directs them to assist in a risky mission in exchange for time off of their sentences.  The catch is that if they try to escape, or refuse, or attempt to kill Captain Flag, they will be instantly killed by explosives implanted in their necks.  Their mission, brought to them by high level security agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), is to extract an important contact in an area under supernatural attack.  One of Waller’s assets, the god-like supervillain Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), has gone rogue and is attempting to build a superweapon capable of destroying the planet.  The “Suicide Squad” realize quickly that their place in the mission is to purposely be the fall guys in this foolish mission, but as they find themselves deeper into the heart of darkness, they learn that there’s a definable line between the bad things they do, and the greater evils that can threaten them all.  And things get even more complicated when Harley’s devoted boyfriend, The Joker (Jared Leto) gets thrown into the mix.

So, did Suicide Squad succeed or fail at righting the ship of DC’s cinematic universe?  Well, it depends on what you want to see going into this film.  If you are looking for a serious comic book adaptation that rivals the spirit of Marvel’s movies, then you will probably come away from this film very disappointed.  This is not the huge shift in the right direction that DC needed to move away from the issues of their previous films.  Plus there are choices made with these characters and their place in the universe that may be off-putting to some die hard fans of the comics.  But, at the same time, if you are just looking for an action movie that manages to have a little fun with the character dynamics of it’s ensemble players, then you might have a good time watching Suicide Squad.  And that’s the reaction that I came away with from it.  Suicide Squad is a flawed movie to be sure, but not one that left me dissatisfied nor angered by the direction that it took.  I kind of knew going in that this movie was not going to be the “be all end all” of DC’s comic book movies, and that helped to temper my expectations a little bit.  What I wanted in the end, more than anything, was to see a movie that played off of these kinds of characters and stand on it’s own separated from it’s place in the DC universe and in that respect, it worked for me.  As an action movie, it’s got personality and purpose, which is much better executed here than in Batman v. Superman.  Even still, I will acknowledge that it still falls short of Marvel quality entertainment, even with regards to the rival’s less successful efforts (although this didn’t anger me like Iron Man 3 did, so that’s a plus).  It’s flaws don’t ruin the experience completely, but sad to say, it does prevent this movie from truly becoming the success that it wants to be.

I would say that the most obvious flaw of this movie is it’s plot, or rather the way it is handled.  There are a lot of threads that are thrown into this movie, and not all of them mesh together very well. I think that it has to do with the terrible editing job that the film suffers through, which is clearly characteristic of studio interference.  Whenever the movie does begin to pick up and find it’s rhythm, it’s undercut by a poorly handled scene transition or loss of perspective.  The movie also suffers some serious pacing issues in the second act, which meanders through some repetitive action sequences that add nothing to the overall experience.  The movie works at it’s best when it remains focused on the characters themselves and what they are going through, but even here, studio meddling messes with the chemistry.  The many attempts to connect the story with the larger world undermines the story several times, and unless you’re an expert in everything related to DC comics, you might find yourself lost in the process.  What I found particularly problematic was the lack of focus on the real threat of the narrative.  It’s kind of ironic that a movie about a collection of villains would have a problem finding a strong antagonist, but that’s the case here.  Enchantress, despite a decent performance by Cara Delevingne, is never fully developed as a character and her motives make little sense, so she kind of becomes the main villain by default.  It could be argued that Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller fills that role too, but her place in the story never quite reaches that.  Most infuriating is the way that the Joker is shoehorned into the movie.  Some people are going to hate this version of the iconic character.  I was mixed on it.  Leto’s performance is different and an interesting way to take the character, but he has no business being in this movie, and if you cut him out completely, he wouldn’t have been missed.  It’s strange additions like this that make the movie too messy at times.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t fall into the same morose pit that ultimately sank Batman v. Superman, and that’s largely thanks to it’s excellent casting.  There aren’t any wasted performances here; they are only let down by the plot in the end.  It’s to the actors credit that they manage to make us care about this ragtag group of criminals.  For one thing, the headlining star, Will Smith, is well served as the brash Deadshot.  Oh, how I have missed this charismatic version of the former Fresh Prince superstar and it’s so refreshing to see Will have some fun again as a character like this in a big budget action flick.  Better yet is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  While this film let’s down the Joker in many ways, it doesn’t waste the same opportunity of making his beloved Harley a welcome presence here.  She is a fan favorite that people have long wanted to finally see on the big screen, and I truly believe the filmmakers succeeded by her.  Margot does a great job embodying the character, making her twisted and endearing all at the same time.  I especially like the fact that she nails the “puddin'” affectation that has defined the character so much in the comics and her early animated incarnations.  In many ways, Harley is the movie’s shining star, and she owns every scene she’s in. However, I would say that my favorite performance in the movie comes from Viola Davis as Amanda Waller.  Here you have a character with no special powers of her own, and yet she has to project complete authority over everyone regardless of how powerful they are, and Viola nails that perfectly in her commanding presence.  There’s a scene late in the movie where she takes some drastic measures to ensure her security that gets a remark from Deadshot, “That was straight up gangster;” and it certainly is.  It makes me anxious to see where she takes the character in future DC films, because she is definitely a highlight of their cinematic master plan so far.  The remaining cast also does a credible job of portraying their characters, and most importantly, it looks like they are having fun doing it.  Having an engaged cast of characters certainly helps to make some of the more flawed aspects of the movie feel less troublesome as a result.

I also think that director David Ayer should be credited for holding together a production that could have fallen apart with all the weight put on it.  Coming from a background of making thoughtful action films centered around character dynamics like End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014), and writing scripts for films like Training Day (2001) and Harsh Times (2005), this was a project that was right up his alley.  And the film’s best moments, namely the character interactions and a few standout action sequences, are representative of what he’s best at as a director.  It’s only when elements of the cinematic universe start to converge into the plot that the movie loses it’s focus.  I get the feeling that in order for this movie to appease the wishes of the execs at Warner Brothers and DC, Ayer had to leave a lot of stuff he wanted out of the movie, and that’s probably the reason why the final edit of the film feels so scattershot.  I would’ve loved a lot less backstory forced into the movie, because it ultimately is irrelevant to the story.  These characters are who they are, so why don’t we just see more of them doing what they’re best at.  At the same time, I am pleased that DC is recognizing that this is a problem and significant re-shoots were made to inject more humor into the movie, and prevent this from becoming the depressing slog that Batman v. Superman was.  I believe the re-shoots helped, because the humor does work here.  There’s also a little camp value to the way this movie goes over the top at times towards the end.  Some might find it too silly, but honestly, that’s something that DC should embrace more.  What David Ayer brought was some visual pop and personality, and despite the roadblocks in his way, he managed to make an engaging film.

So, in the end, this will probably be a divisive movie for many people.  Some will embrace it’s quirkiness, and some will bemoan it as another convoluted mess by DC.  While I can’t say that I loved the movie, I at the same time still found myself entertained for most of it.  Is it a flawed film? Absolutely.  There are still many nagging issues that DC has yet to address with their cinematic universe, namely their insistence on force feeding the construction of this world on us, instead of letting it grow naturally.  This especially hurts Suicide Squad in the long run by undermining the separate identity that it wants to establish.  On the other hand, it is pleasing to see the director and cast actually having fun with these characters, and not taking itself too seriously.  In that regard, it is a step in the right direction for DC.  However, what the cinematic universe needed was a giant course correction, and I don’t think that Suicide Squad was the right movie to lay that responsibility on.  This movie probably would’ve worked better had it been made after a longer running cinematic universe had already been established.  Pushing it to the forefront asks a lot more of this movie, and it’s something that audiences just aren’t ready for yet.  I especially think that this movie does a disservice to the Joker character, considering that we know so little of his place in this universe up to this point.  I hope both him and Harley are given more development in future Batman films.  My hope is that this different flavor of film-making enables DC to try different things in their universe.  Variety is good, and already I have high hopes for a strong showing from Wonder Woman next year.  Suicide Squad may not be Marvel quality, but it tries, and it at least is way better than Batman v. Superman, which isn’t such a bad result after all.

Rating: 7.5/10