“The Suicide Squad” — A Blend of Heart, Gore… and American Intervention?

There have been two sides to filmmaker James Gunn and his mainstream career: there is Gunn the director, who works with oddball ensembles of outcasts trying to resolve their trauma through family surrogate (both Guardians of the Galaxy entries being the obvious examples); then there is the writer-producer Gunn who rides the wave of blood and gore to the heart of the audience (The Belko Experiment, Slither, and Dawn of the Dead). His latest work The Suicide Squad – not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad – is a blend of both worlds. The film is at its best when it embraces this fusion instead of stretching too far out of its element with its performative investigation of American imperialism.

The rules of the game are the same as last time. Incarcerated supervillains are volun-told by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to partake in seemingly impossible missions in exchange for 10 years removed from their prison sentences. The mission? Destroy any and all data relating to a Project Starfish on the South American island of Corto Maltese after a coup leads to the establishment of an anti-American government. There are two teams on the island, unbeknownst to the players and the audience. Colonel Rick Flag and Harley Quinn (Joel Kinnaman and Margot Robbie) are the only survivors of the first team, and the progression of the film volleys back and forth between the main objective and uniting the two characters with the second team, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba).

Unlike its predecessor, the cast buzzes with chemistry. It may not lean as heavily into the surrogate family model that’s been part of Gunn’s filmography, but there are compelling dynamics between all of the actors. Elba’s Bloodsport shines brightest when he shares the screen with Ratcatcher 2 and Peacemaker (Daniela Melchior and John Cena). Melchior’s kindness and the friendship between Flag and Quinn is almost enough to counteract the callousness of the film’s violence, but it’s difficult for this writer to forget the ease it took to mass murder a coalition of freedom fighters on the island fighting the new regime. The point was already made in the film’s first 10 minutes it was going to be a bloody ride. Was it necessary to display American assets, particularly someone named Peacemaker, rampage through a camp of defenseless non-white people? Never mind the fun the movie seemed to be having with it.

Of course, that isn’t to say things like that don’t happen. There are countless examples of American-sponsored genocide and intervention. It feels like Gunn wants to be genuine with his critique of America’s influence abroad, but the film disrespects the very people it aims to save. Very American if one thinks about it. The people of Corto Maltese are props. Even the leader of the coalition, Sol Soria (Alice Braga), is more-or-less unbothered upon discovering her entire camp being murdered. This is easier for her to do at the behest of Flag, who insists the mission is the same and they’re on the same side. There’s a huge Spongebob “we saved the city” vibe in the end when, literally seconds after the climactic battle, amongst the rubble of her home, Soria conducts an interview saying the country will have free democratic elections. The whole angle doesn’t feel completely thought out, thus it doesn’t feel genuine.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Bad politics aside, the film’s writing and editing leave one wanting less. Robbie is a natural as Quinn, but if she were to be removed from the story, it’s mostly the same film. We love to see the acrobatic Quinn break dudes necks with her thighs or to see her explode in a flowery storm of bullets and blood, yet her role is distant from the others and disconnected from the overall narrative. The film’s editing also can’t seem to get out of its own way, cutting away just before certain line deliveries that went in perfect harmony with its corresponding image. It does it again as the final battle reaches a head when the film opts for a brief flashback. These editing decisions were enough to take this viewer out of the moment.

The film does deserve points for its creature design. A giant, all-consuming starfish from space? It’s more memorable than most generic final boss battles in this genre. Gunn’s true love for the misunderstood can be seen through Starro the Conqueror, who was captured by astronauts and experimented on ever since. Seemingly capable of infinite growth, to the point where it could go full face-hugger on the entire Earth, it does come across a little odd that it would be satisfied with simply taking the island of Corto Maltese. Regardless, the decision to possess the citizens of the island and use them as a mouthpiece for Starro gives the creature a hint of a personality, capped off with its final line, reminiscing its time floating through space while in the throes of death.

Thus concludes this mixed review for this mixed movie. While Gunn’s work shouldn’t be labeled as subversive, it does usually have its own voice that balances between brutishness and empathy. Suicide Squad veers more into the former than the latter. It certainly isn’t boring and most people will vibe with the hectic energy. Some jokes land better than others. For the love of God, COVID or no COVID, cover your mouth when you cough.

RATING:

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” Is A Pain to Look At

If there is one saving grace for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and the universe it dwells in, it’s love.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) yet again find themselves at the center of a paranormal event that begins with the exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). David’s entire family, including his sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) and her boyfriend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). The evening erupts into chaos when the entity possessing David wreaks havoc on the family. Pretty much ripped right out of The Exorcist, the scene lacks originality or any depth beyond attempting to shock the viewer with how outlandish the boy’s body contorts itself into knots coupled with a superficial sound design. This is not the only time it does something in this nature either. The scene comes to a head when Arne pleads for the entity to take him instead of the boy. Once the transfer happens, everything calms and the battle is over for now since apparently no one saw this happen other than Ed, who is incapacitated after suffering a heart injury. Arne, now harboring what the Warrens will find out to be a witch’s curse, murders his girlfriend’s boss, thus leading to the first known court case in which the defense argued for their client’s innocence based on the grounds of demonic possession.  

While the real-life famous couple’s authenticity is debatable, the care portrayed by Wilson and Farmiga between their characters has always been the strength of this franchise. Director Michael Chaves and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick put the Warrens in a dilemma by limiting what Ed does throughout the film due to his injury – although it picks and chooses when this limitation can be seen. Chaves and crew are wishy-washy with this strategy and eventually just forgo it, so the story still ends up being Ed saving Lorraine from the clutches of witchcraft. Their tenderness towards one another also has included an intimate family setting. Interfering with this foundation puts the film in an odd place that fluctuates in tone. A chunk of it takes a stab at being an investigative thriller; some of it courtroom drama; too little of it scary. Whatever sequences that try to be scary are run of the mill. Lots of staring into dark spaces, waiting for something to charge in an overused crab-walk, no dread behind it.

The movie is also ugly. Its drab color palette is muted with the woes of MCU-like greys. Apart from a handful of well-composed shots, the cinematography creates a forgettable experience. There’s nothing stress-invoking about the CGI-constructed demonic face morphs and body mutilations that haven’t been done dozens of times now. Even its “twist” is one that can be seen from a mile away, but the same can be pretty much said about everything else in this.

Even though we’re now three movies into this franchise, not counting the number of spinoffs its inspired, it’s still no more interested in filling out the world the Warrens inhabit beyond reaping the rewards of dramatizing another one of their cases. The lore never goes beyond the cases. There’s no love shown towards their daughter this time around, a key figure in the previous sequel. Their loyal partner Drew (Shannon Kook) is no more than a yes man with no depth beyond pitching the occasional good idea. And while the romance between Ed and Lorraine resembles authenticity, the same cannot be said about the one between Arne and Debbie. Whatever focus is given to their relationship is superficial, even while Debbie remains unquestionably loyal to her future husband whom she would marry while he served his five-year prison sentence for his murder.

The decision to play real recordings of the exorcism of David and an interviewer asking the Warrens what they think the ramifications will be in the legal system if anyone can claim demonic possession is… an interesting one. Whether it was intended by Chaves or not, the move feels like pulling the rug from under our feet. The Conjuring films have held the Warrens to this fairy tale pedestal yet chooses to undermine that by including the audio. In a stronger version of this film, their actions and the ripple effect that comes from them would be the central theme – one that is introspective and thought-provoking. Instead, one has to surrender to the idea that the audio was simply included just for the sake of scares. It’s thoughtless, effortless, and unoriginal as a whole.

RATING:

“A Quiet Place Part II” Review

A Quiet Place Part II goes pretty much how you expect.

Family navigates apocalypse while having to be completely silent. Noise is made. Family runs from weird long-legged aliens. Silence again. Rinse, cycle, repeat.

This doesn’t work quite as well for sophomore director John Krasinski the way it does in part one. Although the same tension from the first film is more or less there throughout, Krasinski’s writing subtracts more than it adds. Character decisions are questionable at best – including one infuriating death scene – and there are too many ideas that are not given enough attention within the 97-minute runtime. With that being said, better to start off with what the film does right.

Part II begins with a flashback to the fateful day these noise-hating creatures crash-landed on earth. The film’s opening is essentially a recap of how the world descended into quiet hell. It also serves as a bit of world-building. It opens on the main road of small town, America. Krasinski’s Lee noisily parks his truck in front of the local convenient store for snacks – which he doesn’t have to pay for. It’s that kind of town. Up the road, his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is playing baseball on what’s likely the only field in this town. It’s here we’re reintroduced to the gang – Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy). The stands are packed. People cheer loudly. Life is good for not another five minutes before a massive ball of fire streaks across the sky. You can guess what happens next. The scene promises a film that has recaptured the hair-raising tension from its predecessor. A promise it only kind of delivers on. 

Simmonds commands the screen for every scene she is in. Her performance as the fearless Regan demands everyone else to come to her level of intensity. Her ability to volley between tenacity and empathy ring comparisons of other strong female leads in horror. I would argue that what makes Simmonds unique is her age. She was only 15 during the release of A Quiet Place (2017), the role that put her onto a wider audience after she made her screen debut in the preceding Wonderstruck (2017). For comparison, Sigourney Weaver was 28 when her iconic Ellen Ripley survived the horrors of the Nostromo in Alien (1977). Jamie Lee-Curtis, an original scream queen, survived Michael Meyers when she was 20-years-old in Halloween (1978). If you want something a little more modern, Anya Taylor-Joy was 19 when her lead performance in The Witch (2015) kickstarted her career. Simmonds has made a strong case to be the main cog in the newly announced sequel. She should be in more things. 

It’s also a good thing for the movie that Regan spends most of the story with someone who counters her prowess with the flailing limbs of defeat. Cillian Murphy does what he does best. His ocean-blue eyes reek of fear and hopelessness as his character reels from the passing of his wife. Pairing his cowardice with Regan’s resolve brings an enjoyable dynamic throughout their time together.

Jupe takes advantage of what he can in his performance. His character Marcus spends most of the film seated after getting his foot caught in the jaws of a bear trap. At the very least, no one should question whether or not he can pull off a good scream. It also feels like he is the one dealing with the highest stakes in the film. His main objective is to care for his baby sibling while his mother leaves them to find medical supplies for Marcus’ wound that’s threatening infection. The baby itself should feel like a screaming fire alarm in this setting but it’s actually pretty tame considering. Nonetheless, their pairing leads to some breathless (literally) sequences. Blunt isn’t given much material to work with. She takes on a pure action role and does it well. Moving on. 

Composer Marco Beltrami also deserves a shoutout. He and Krasinski are on the same page when it comes to deciding when to breathe and when to floor it. His methodical score is one of the bright spots in Part II

The shallowness of Part II is ultimately what keeps it mediocre at best. With a film whose main concept revolves around silence equaling survival, it’s difficult not to get more than a few jump scares by just throwing some alien in the mix to make a racket. Krasinski can’t help himself in this regard. He isn’t interested in revealing any more about them than he was in the first film. They’re faceless antagonists for our heroes and that’s it. Not that this is a cardinal sin per se, but the inconsistent world-building teases for there to be more when there simply isn’t. The cinematography also feels like a missed opportunity, especially when Emmett and Regan team up for the film’s on-the-road segment. The imagery feels mostly flat and uninspiring. 

Speaking of shallow, everyone sure did seem to move on from the death of Lee fairly quickly. Considering the connection Regan made with him at the end of the first film, everyone’s pretty chill about this other than a mention or two and Regan unfairly comparing Emmett to Lee. Sure, maybe they’ve lost so much already that they’ve developed a “keep going” mentality. But this is only hours after the first film and not a tear is shed for him. There is no mourning for this character that is perceived as a perfect man, one who Emmett ultimately tries to live up to. Another missed opportunity for Krasinksi and crew.

Then there’s the criminal misuse of Djimon Hounsou. The man is featured prominently in trailers and press yet doesn’t even have a name for his character. He is simply known as ‘Man on the Island.’ He has no other purpose besides delivering an intimate monologue to Emmett and providing transportation for him and Regan to a radio tower to combat an alien that has made its way to this haven-like island that has escaped the clutches of the invasion because these aliens also apparently cannot swim. Guess they never thought one could stow away on a boat. Hounsou’s departure is frustrating and feels borderline disrespectful. He is also the only Black character with a speaking role, so do with that what you will. Hounsou is an Academy Award-nominated actor who deserves more than the throwaway scrap roles Hollywood offers him. I recommend watching Constantine (2005) for a deeper appreciation for his talents. Although this is also a supporting role, it is leagues better and shows the enigmatic charm he’s capable of. 

It could just be because I’ve been writing a lot about sequels lately, but having a film serve as a bridge to the next entry just feels incoherent. It feels closer to television. The opening third of this is a reaction from the previous episode while the ending serves as a launching pad for the next episode with its abrupt ending. It just feels incomplete in film.

The movie will no doubt make its way through the box office though and Paramount will follow the money to another sequel. The usual winners will win again for putting out average content. Here’s to hoping for a more thoughtful sequel.  

RATING: