Suicide Squad

I’m pretty sure that future historians will trace the fall of modern civilisation to the moment when people began to speak reverentially of “the Marvel universe” or “the DC universe”, as if it was the Manhattan project of literature. I mean we don’t talk in sonorous tones of “the Eastenders universe”. Before I went to see Suicide Squad, I knew it had been declared a disaster. Apparently Marvel have got this universe thing wrapped up, but DC is a mess. Indeed I went to see it partly hoping for a clusterfuck, there’s a certain joy in watching (and reviewing) such a film.

And it is certainly a very flawed film. There are plot holes so large you wince at their nakedness. The main foe, The Enchantress (played by Cara Delevingne), is about as menacing as someone in the office who has learnt belly dancing and wants to show you their moves. There isn’t much chemistry between the gang, and there is so much idiot-lecture exposition you wonder if these characters have indeed wandered in from a different universe.

But it’s also got some good points. It has a Warriors style gang look and feel. It’s more ‘street’ than any DC or Marvel film (with the exception of Deadpool). Smith is cool and sufficiently human to give his character depth. But it’s Robbie’s film – Harley Quinn gets all the best lines and scenes, and she plays it with the right level of danger, sympathy and comedy. Both Robbie and Smith understand the type of film they’re in – playful nonsense. Leto on the other hand thinks he’s playing Macbeth. Thankfully his appearances are relatively scarce, because every time he is on screen you are desperate for the scene to end. It’s a shame the “universe” demands that he and Quinn are a couple, because a much better ending would be if she put her baseball bat to effective use.

I sometimes see commentators pondering how to ‘fix’ the problem of the poor DC adaptations. The underlying assumption here seems to be that we have to keep making them, as if some law has been decreed. We could just make other types of films you know. In psychology this is known as cognitive inertia – you keep perpetuating the same behaviour despite the lack of success. But the production cycle of Hollywood is already fixed for the next 5 to 10 years on DC and Marvel adaptations. And I guess that is the appeal of the ‘universe’ approach – it is comfortable and reassuring, both for film execs who can plan their hits for the next decade, and audiences who know previously what world their entering. But that’s why they’re boring too.

Suicide Squad is a mess, but it’s a reasonably enjoyable mess. I preferred it to any of the Avengers or X-Men movies. It’s just not as good as other movies.

Lights Out

For each of us, not all genres are created equal. Horror is one of my preferred genres, so I’ll happily watch a formulaic horror with a 5.1 IMDB rating, whereas I’ll criticise a rom com with the same score for being cliched. And a musical had better be brining 8.5 to the table before I’ll even consider it. So when I say Lights Out is a good film, it’s with this bias.

It isn’t particularly original – it tells of a family haunted by a malevolent spirit. As the title suggests, the spirit – Diana – can only exist in the dark. This gives plenty of room for creepy scenes, jump shocks, tense search scenes. The jump shock is a hackneyed technique, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still effective. It is over-used, and films without much else going for them rely on it. Lights Out is neatly done, tightly scripted – it has a lot of resemblance to 2013’s Oculus (although that featured haunted mirrors, so wins).

As with The Babadook, it could be read as an allegory for depression, but it doesn’t forget it’s a horror film first. It doesn’t have any of the atmosphere, or originality of The Witch, say, but it’s a scary 90 minutes, and yeah, maybe I left the landing light on that night.

Remember

Atom Egoyan’s film was actually a 2015 release but it had a delayed outing in the UK, and I’ve only just come across it, so here it is. The film details Alzheimer’s sufferer Christopher Plummer on a revenge road trip across North America, co-ordinated by his fellow old-homes resident Martin Landau. Both are survivors of Auschwitz, and four individuals have been identified as the possible Nazi commander who killed their families. There is not enough evidence to prosecute, but Landau’s Max assures Plummer’s Zef that he will recognise him.

In my review of Son of Saul I touched upon the dilemma facing Holocaust movies – the demands of the subject are incompatible with the requirements of cinema. Son of Saul tackles this through cinematography, immersing us directly in Auschwitz. Remember addresses it by bowing to the narrative arc of cinema, and satisfying these needs to create an engaging, intelligent and tense road movie. It creates this film effectively first of all, and this allows the layers of further mean to be developed. These include the nature of memory, and our identity. Most significantly, we will soon be in a time when there are no Holocaust survivors left – how we remember, and what we as a society choose to remember is the question this film raises.

It does this deftly, and without a heavy touch. You can watch it as an enjoyable, unusual thriller and be satisfied. Nabakov argued thats “Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie…we should study that new world… having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds’. The artefact has to stand on its own before we consider the meaning and intentions it raises. Remember does this perfectly.

Star Trek Beyond

I am old enough to remember going to the cinema to see the first Star Trek film in 1980. And that in itself was a reboot of the TV series which was nearly always on rotation on TV. I bumped into some mates from school at that screening and the feeling afterwards was a bit “it was allright, I suppose”. The intervening period has seen those films grow in affection for an audience who views them as almost beyond criticism. The truth is they weren’t very good, lacked much action and rather lumbered along.

If that gang of 13 year olds had been given this movie to view, it would have been our favourite film ever (until the next Chuck Norris flick anyway). As it is, the Star Trek franchise is trying to wiggle a niche of its own inbetween Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and all the other Marvel nonsense. With Star Trek Beyond it seems to have realised this quite successfully. It eschews the fashionable ‘darkness’ so beloved of many films, it has a few moments of humour but it doesn’t attempt the knowing meta humour of Guardians or Deadpool. Instead it’s quite old fashioned, it opts for the character ensemble in space, some decent set pieces and corny messages about unity being important.

There are no cutesy aliens in this, no meme moments, but the interplay between the characters as they come together on an alien planet to defeat the evil Krall, is well played. Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (Anton Yelchin’s last role) all capture the originals and look comfortable now in these roles. Even Simon Pegg isn’t too annoying.

Ultimately it’s what you want from a summer blockbuster – big, loud, fun, but not something you’ll bother with a second time, or spend long pondering. Given the turkeys of Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad though, this now seems like high watermark for summer films. My verdict would be upgraded from the 13 year old’s version to “yeah, it’s allright”.

Finding Dory

An odd thing has happened with Pixar movies, they have transformed from being smart kids movies with something in them for adults, to grown up movies disguised as kids films. Dealing with identity issues on retirement (Toy Story 3), coping with your growing irrelevance as a parent (Inside Out) and now caring for a relative with dementia in Finding Dory. I mean, would any grown ups go and see movies on these themes if they weren’t coated in the sugar pill of a light hearted animation?

In a world where a braying, bullying man-child is a serious contender for the most powerful job in the world, it is perhaps no surprise that the best medium for dealing with complex, grown up issues is children’s movies. Finding Dory is not quite up there with Pixar classics, but it has enough “dad, are you crying again” moments. It is an actual sequel in that it continues a story rather than just retelling the same one. But Pixar movies work best when we are introduced to a new world, and this one is already familiar so lacks the joy of all the small gags about how things work in this world (eg fish holding their breath to look out of the water). The plot relies too much of jumping one tank to another to really be engaging. But it cleverly maintains the animation style of the original with improvements in clarity. As if to illustrate the point about where they could have gone with the animation, the preceding short “Piper” is so realistic you wonder at what point all actors will be made redundant.

The Pixar formula of increasingly adult themes in a child’s body type movies may be nearing its end though I feel. There is a harsher, more chaotic blend around the corner I suspect that will appeal to kids more, but maybe their parents less.