James Gunn has always been a delightfully rambunctious, perennially irreverent filmmaker whether he’s exploring the realm of sentient alien slugs, sad-sack superhero wannabes or comic book property, which he gets to do once again in The Suicide Squad, one of his very best films yet. He feels more at home in the world of DC than he does in Marvel and it’s not just the larger playground that a hard-R rating gifts him, although that is a *huge* factor given his stylistic tendencies as an artist and his roots in horror, which are on gooey display here as well. The DC stable, particularly villains, just has this dark, perverse edge to it that Marvel can’t match and in creating a maniacal palooza of second tier baddies in a subversive, heavily violent extravaganza he has found a groove and achieved an aesthetic that for the entire two plus hour runtime I wasn’t bored by once. Some of our familiar favourites from the other Suicide Squad naturally return including Harley (Margot Robbie, resplendent in the role of her career), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) as well as welcome new additions like Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), Savant (Gunn totem Michael Rooker looking like he walked in from a Rob Zombie flick) the scene stealing Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), impossibly adorable King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) and of course Viola Davis as their game warden Amanda Waller, the cunt to end all cunts. Their missions here include the overthrow of a South American country, constant bickering, shocking team casualties, betrayals, clever skewering of American patriotism, a giant alien starfish, bountiful loads of gratuitous and blessedly gory violence and a clever balancing act between lighthearted, frothy banter and a darker undercurrent of thematic heft that sneaks in the back door and lands with an effective, grounded touch. Obvious comparisons will be made to the 2016 Suicide Squad and I’d like to sideswipe that other than to say I love both films, they’re both very different and the 2016 is what it is, it has its reputation. I do believe this to be the stronger film but I think they both have their place on my shelf, they are M&M’s and Skittles, Pepsi and Coke, or Warheads and Airheads to reference a junk food as obscure as the characters on display here. Gunn has made a rollicking, badass, bizarre yet strangely accessible piece of pop art nutso comic book madness here with many standout moments including an emotional monologue by Ratcatcher (she’s the soul of the film), some stunning technicolor gore effects that call to mind Lovecraft and Carpenter, an Easter egg hunt of many hidden film and literary references, a ballsy, nihilism laced opening sequence wherein some of the characters brutally live up to the title of the film, one instance of Waller *finally* getting a modicum of what she deserves, some painfully on the nose political satire and, in my favourite sequence the film has to offer, a brilliantly placed and paced opportunity for Robbie’s ever awesome Harley to work through the trauma of her past and absolutely TAKE DOWN toxic relationships like the badass boss bitch we all know she is. A wonderful, weird, wild and fantastic film.
Speaking of being stuck at home with nothing to do, I didn’t expect to enjoy D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia as much as I did, but man was this film ever a blast. I always felt like this would be a run of the mill teens in peril type thriller that didn’t take the genre that seriously or provide decent scares. Not only was I wrong in that regard but the film also beautifully captures both the odd, consistently quirky ensemble symphony of suburban life as well as the very personally nostalgic experience of summer vacation in the mid 2000’s from Green Day blasting over speakers to Halo on Xbox live. Shia Leboeuf had a wicked teenage career run and is quite engaging here as Kale, who has lost his dad (Matt Craven) in a tragic recent car accident and is just trying to continue life with his stressed out mom (Carrie Ann Moss). When his dipshit Spanish teacher makes a very out of line remark Kale one punches him and finds himself on three months house arrest over the summer, confined to his home and bored to tears. That’s when the fun begins as he finds romance with the new girl next door (Sarah Roemer) and stumbles upon danger when he suspects his charming neighbour (David Morse) of being a gnarly serial killer. No one believes him of course and the guy keeps finding ways of covering up his would be crimes which allows for a delightfully suspenseful series of stakeouts, covert missions and eventually full on chases. Morse is appropriately evil without going too far into the guy’s psyche, he’s just the casual bachelor next door who happens to murder women in his spare time and really doesn’t appreciate being spied on. The film’s biggest influence is obviously Hitchcock’s Rear Window but I also got a flavour inspired by Joe Dante’s The Burbs, another comedic sendup of life behind picket fences and both films capture the atmosphere nicely. A super solid thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously and one that made me feel wistful for those mid 2000’s summers with nothing to do but binge video games, hit on local beauties and spy on the neighbours. Good times.
Both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz can carry a film nicely on their own, but both of them front and centre in the same project makes for a great time, even if it is a piece of inconsequential fluff like James Mangold’s Knight & Day, a riff on the romantic action spy comedy that sees the two of them shooting their way across the globe before inevitably ending up in each other’s arms. This film looks, feels and sounds like a million others out there, it’s brightly lit, generically shot and doesn’t have much in the way of its own brand of style or atmosphere. What sets it apart are Tom and Cameron, who breathe life into the two roles and provide their own lighting with those famous smiles. He’s Roy Miller, a slightly aloof super spy on the run from both his former bosses (Viola Davis and Peter Sarsgaard, both meaning business) and a nasty Latin arms dealer (Jordi Molla). She’s June Havens, a bubbly rare auto restorer who bumps into him in the airport and gets swept up in a frenzied world of intrigue, murder, car chases, dodgy feds, international escapism and all the Miller Lite PG-13 gunplay the MPAA can shake a stick at. There’s a freeway pileup in Boston, a rowdy hand to hand beatdown aboard a plane that Cruise is forced to land in a cornfield, a motorbike chase in Madrid, and (my favourite) a close quarters knife fight on a train through the Austrian Alps. It’s all fun and games without much of a brain in its head, but the idea is to have a good time anyways. Cruise plays it slightly loopy here, as if decades of stressful spy work has left him… not quite all there. Best line of the film? “Nobody move or I’ll kill myself and then her!” He barks to a diner full of people as he drags her off to another action sequence. Diaz is game for it and keeps up with him, especially once she starts to get a feel for the fast and loose lifestyle. The film doesn’t make too much of an impression and I wish it had more of an organic vibe all its own to match what the two stars bring to the table, because as is the overall visual aesthetic is a bit bland, and over-lit. Cruise and Diaz make it worthwhile though, and are clearly having a blast. It just occurred to me, but where did that title even come from?
Concept: Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is not a remake of the 70’s version but a separate adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem, existing as its own vision of that story. Many people ripped on this as being an inferior retread of Andrei Tarkovsky’s strange, deliberately slow film (which didn’t work for me). Now bear with me: in my humble and frequently disputed opinion, Soderbergh’s is not only the better film but the definitive version of this story. It’s shorter, less theatrical, far more accessible but in the end it’s timbre simply struck a far more resonant chord with me, and I never argue with that intuitive barometer. This version is also slow, but finds a hypnotic, mesmeric cadence to the story of psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) and the mysterious sphere of luminescence, the planet Solaris. Kelvin has been called there by his friend and colleague Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) after some… odd things start happening to the astronauts aboard, and it’s here on this quiet, near abandoned space station that he undergoes an intense, otherworldly and very personal metaphysical journey that is catalyzed by the forces of the planet sparkling below them and deepened further by the difficult, unexplored regions of human psyches and behaviour. The planet below has a habit of resurrecting Kelvin’s wife who died years before and placing her on the station with him. Why? Who can say, but it certainly provides everyone involved with all sorts of dilemmas both internal and external, starting with the nature of love, loss and grief. This version of Rheya is clearly not Chris’s wife, but a copy made by the planet based on his memory, mental images and unresolved emotions surrounding her. He struggles at first to see this, then he does. She too struggles at first with existential confusion, and comes to a similar realization, with heartbreaking results. This film is thoughtful and ponderous even by Science Fiction standards, there isn’t a single action scene or anything like that, it is solely character based, atmospheric storytelling that draws you in ways some people have forgotten film is capable of. Clooney is at his most vulnerable here, the charm, affability and mile wide smile nowhere in sight. This is a man whose grief has come back full circle to him, and the haunted, staggered reaction upon seeing his wife again for the first time is my favourite work he has ever done. McElhone is an actress who rarely gets the chance to exercise her full potential, but this is a career best for her, she goes to some places that are hard to get to, and her methods of getting there in her obvious scene prep and meditative focus are beautiful to behold. The scenes near Solaris are interlaced with their complicated, stormy yet devoted relationship years prior, which is the lynchpin and mapping schematic that Solaris later draws on for… whatever it thinks it’s doing. Composer Cliff Martinez often works with Soderbergh, and their collaboration here is succinct and tandem, the soft, rhythmic electronic beat pulsing along to images of sleek, still hallways of the station and the vividly coloured planet below, holding secrets that seem just out of reach. The film questions not only love and life but the way human beings perceive each other, whether a tangible person can exist based only upon someone’s dimming memory of them, and what part exactly does the soul play in all of this. “We don’t have to think like that anymore”, Rheya lovingly reassures Chris when he worriedly questions the semantics of Solaris’s plan. Opaque is the nature of this story, but through it we are invited to feel our way to truths that hide behind the swirling pulsars adorning Solaris and the ongoing relationship between these two lovers who are star crossed in more than just a metaphorical sense. Complex, difficult themes to be sure, but it’s all dealt with in organic, rapturous fashion as Soderbergh lets glances, body language, music and affection tell the story instead of heaps of dialogue or obvious beats. A love story wrapped up in a gorgeous musical tone poem gilded by an intelligent, thought provoking science fiction story that questions the essential, reaches for answers in unconventional ways and does things with film that the medium was meant for. One of my top ten favourite films ever made, and up there with the very best Sci Fi’s out there.
Ever heard the expression ‘trip over your own ambitions’ ? That applies in full force to Steve McQueen’s Widows, a film that doesn’t have half the time needed to nurture, juggle or resolve the nebula of plots, twists, sub plots and sub-twists it tries to throw out there. That’s not to say that it isn’t a valiant effort; this is a film that tries a lot of things, is very innovative and engages often, but ultimately it’s just not enough and feels more like a running start without the follow through of flight. In the opener we see a heist that goes about as incredibly wrong as it could: cops hunt down a crew of high stakes robbers led by career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), gunning them all down. Viola Davis is his wife Veronica, left to pick up the pieces when thuggish wannabe politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree James) and his sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya is a beast) come looking for money he owed them before he died. That’s when she gets the idea to carry out the plans for his would-be next heist, joined by the other widowed women of his crew. There’s also an overarching subplot involving corrupt electoral candidate Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), his racist, old-money prick of a father (Robert Duvall with fire n’ brimstone mode activated) and others in both low income and Ivy League Chicago, which aren’t as far apart as you think, as McQueen shows us in an all too obvious extended shot of a car ride. There are aspects I loved; the opening heist, shot mostly POV from the back of the van, is a whiz banger, taut and packed with adrenaline. The performances are excellent all round, from Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki as other wives of the fallen robbers to memorable supporting turns from Jacki Weaver, Garrett Dillahunt, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Kevin J. O’Connor, a quietly scene stealing Lukas Haas, the most excellent Cynthia Erivo and many more. The narrative encapsulates the heists themselves with ongoing conflict including racism, urban politics, interracial romance, low income versus filthy rich, nepotism and everything in between, and this ambition to explore many avenues in one go is where the film fatally falters. The widow’s heist, when we finally come around to it, is brazen and impactful but blares by too quick for the payoff leading up to it. Hans Zimmer’s score echoes stuff like Heat but seems to only really show up now and again instead of being a prominent presence. At two hours and nine minutes, McQueen just didn’t leave himself enough time to properly cultivate relationships, build enough tension, explain his narrative fluidly or develop the characters that he clearly loves. It’s unfortunate because the guy is one hell of a director, both with his actors and his camera, he knows how to tell a story and make it feel fresh, unpredictable and just spontaneously offbeat enough to seem like real life as opposed to a story that obviously works within the parameters of script. He’s a thoroughbred, but he didn’t leave enough track to run on with this one, and I almost feel like he would have been better off going the episodic route here, as it would have had way more space to breathe and audiences far more time to ruminate on the events. Worth watching to see everything cascade by like a parade in fast forward, but don’t expect to be satisfied with wrap ups or conclusions.
Dark. Rainy. Uneasy. Covered in a cloak of gloom, gruesome secrets and morally questionable actions. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is one of the premier kidnapping thrillers of recent years, and a mile marker in the still blossoming career of a man who will no doubt go on to be a legend. Many thrillers are lacking in some elements while excel in others, but here every base is covered with care and attention, from style to substance to pacing to realism to thematic material. When a couple’s daughter goes missing without a trace on a quiet suburban block, the distraught father (Hugh Jackman) tries to take matters into his own hands with disastrous and damaging results. When you factor in how long the case drags without clues, results or hope it’s kind of hard to blame him for taking action of his own volition, but when he abducts a mentally challenged man (Paul Dano) who was seen skulking around in a creepy RV the day of the incident, he crosses the line from righteous investigator to dangerous vigilante. Jake Gyllenhaal and his snazzy hairstyle are great as a rugged detective who just can’t seem to get a grasp on what happened but doesn’t quit anyway. Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Wayne Duvall, Viola Davis, Dylan Minette and more make vivid impressions, but it’s the consistently surprising and always dynamic Melissa Leo who steals the show and galvanizes the story with her chilling work. Roger Deakins is a prince among DoP’s and his rain streaked, utterly bleak visual mood-scape here is something to behold, the overcast weather seeps into the bones of these characters and brings out all the confusion and hopelessness of this grim, downbeat story. This is a detailed, difficult tale that does have an answer by the time the final act rolls around, and by that time we’re so so steeped in the quagmires of Jackman’s extreme actions that the further the trip goes into unpleasantness, the more eerily fitting it seems. It’s a dark, relentless trip but thanks to everyone involved and especially Villeneuve’s assured direction, it’s one worth taking.
This truly is a remarkable film. It is made with so much delicate care and craftsmanship, the entire two hours and nineteen minutes is fluid and seamless. It’s the picture that feels like Denzel Washington has been working his entire career to not only make, but perfect.
Set in a dilapidated Negro ghetto in 1954, Washington is the tough and oblique patriarch of a family suffocated by their hopes and washout of the American Dream. Viola Davis not only gives her career best performance, as Washington’s steadfast wife, she easily gives one of the best performances in recent cinematic memory.
While the performances and Washington’s perfection behind the camera are a sight to behold, the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, production design by David Gropman, and editing by Hughes Winborne are so perfect, they go unnoticed. As the film progresses, whether it is a performance, an aesthetic, or a technical aspect, they work in such unison that nothing stands out, the score does not out perform the editing nor does the writing outshine Davis.
The narrative strikes a hidden chord between being timeless and culturally and politically relevant. It’s a tough story about a (black) working class family that deals with the conventional setbacks of life, yet they have their own uniquely complex set of hurdles that are undoubtedly self inflicted.
FENCES is truly the epitome of a Best Picture. Everything, and I mean everything, is perfected in the film. It has all the ingredients to be that Best Picture, but what makes the film surpass the run of the mill, end of the year Oscar bait, is at its core it is filled with an unmatched amount of heart about what it is to be a family.
Podcasting Them Softly is honored to present a discussion with feature film editor Hughes Winborne! Some of his credits include the Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, The Help, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Great Debaters, and Sling Blade. He won the Academy Award for his editing work on the 2005 film Crash, and this winter, his latest project, Fences, re-teams him with director and star Denzel Washington — the film looks absolutely fantastic and we can’t wait to see it. We hope you enjoy this informative and entertaining chat where we found out more about Hughes‘ process, his experiences, and some his inspirations. Enjoy!
Suicide Squad has left me so torn. On the one hand I just want to belligerantly profess my love for certain key aspects which I have salivated for for a long time now, to blindly just say ‘nope. Fuck it, it’s great’, like that one stupid kid in class who just won’t back down from an argument he is clearly losing. On the other hand I do have to come to terms with the very real, very problematic aspects to the whole thing, weigh it out rationally (not something I’m great at) and make heavy mention of what didn’t work (not something I enjoy doing). I also have a massive bias towards DC as well, particularly all things Batman and foes, so that needed to be taken into account too.
Let’s get what didn’t work out of the way: everyone is hearing that the film is a mess, and I can indeed say that yes, it’s one huge jumbled mess, like twenty unmade beds tossed into a washing machine together. It’s heavily edited in places that could have used fluidity, and flatlines in other spots where a bit of frenzy would have worked better. It’s scant on character, frankly because there are too many, packed with a soundtrack that has it bursting at the hastily sewn seams, drastically and obviously cut in specific places that are noticeable holes in which you could drive the Batmobile through, and burdened with a lazily assembled antagonist who doesn’t deserve the heroes they rumble with. That’s just off the top of my head.
Now, what worked: There’s a silver lining to the inane madness of the film, because in it’s confusing symphony of random candy coated antics it almost finds a trace of a beat, a rhythm that’s almost decimated by the chorus. I’m not excusing the hackjob of editing or cuts, merely saying that with all taken into account, it kind of takes on a life of it’s own that while completely tone deaf, is never boring. Let’s talk about Harley Quinn and The Joker. When the Blu Ray comes out with all them deleted scenes, I’m going to make a personal fan edit that sheds the spotlight on all the nastier stuff we missed in the theatrical version. The stuff we do get to see with Harley is pure magic, and Robbie owns the film. Maddeningly sexy, sketchy, dangerous, cute, and gloriously insane, she nails it to the wall in terms of what makes the character so special. Jared Leto as The Joker is…. different. While I didn’t like the laugh (he sounded like a geriatric hyena), I really took a shine to the direction they went with the clown this time around. A pasty ghoul who is sick with weirdo ‘love’ for Harley, this is a Joker who is way more in tune with the comics version than Ledger was. There were a few off key mannerisms and questionable little things, but for the most part I’d say he rocked it, and I’m stoked to see him square off with Batman in a standalone flick.
So, the rest of the squad. They’re a random bunch of nut bars who are hastily and over enthusiastically hurrah-ed onto stage by stone cold suit Amanda Waller (a terrifying Viola Davis), who is far more villainous than any of them. Davis is the consummate amoral politician, fuelled by gnawing xenophobia and given the power to push her unholy agenda to scary heights. Will Smith is a hoot as Deadshot, he just needed a little less mirth and a tad more menace in the mix. A joke or three sits well with me, but I don’t like wading through quip stew with thoughts of serious threat on the other side, only to find a backbone replaced by pining for his young daughter. Nothing wrong with pathos, but remember guys, Deadshot is a villain, and too much mush takes away from the street cred. Killer Croc is great when he’s around, which isn’t much until the climax where he gets a nice action bit, but still overall underused. I’ve been an avid non fan of Jai Courtney thus far, he’s just reeked of blandness. Well crikey, the guy does a nice job here of being the rambunctious bad boy of the pack, even if the reason for his inclusion in the squad doesn’t extend much farther than ‘he robbed every bank in australia’. Like… what? Joel Kinnaman holds his own as special ops asset Rick Flagg, and Cara Delevingne much less so as the gyrating, Grudge inspired Enchantress. She’s just not a powerful villain in any way, but damn if she didn’t turn heads in that little outfit. Cara actually fared way better as Dr. June Moon in what little time we spent with her, of which I would have loved to see more. Jay Hernandez is on fire (sorry) as Diablo, a flammable ex gang banger who grew a conscience to go with his pyrotechnic prowess. As far as Slipknot (Adam Beach) goes, there was literally no reason, no reason at all for him to be in the film. Introduced as ‘the man who can climb anything’, he climbs like… one wall that anyone with his tools could scale….and then dies. Poor Adam. Karen Fukuhara is cool as Katana, but we’ve seen the hot Asian samurai shtick done to death, so it’s nothing altogether new.
No, the film rests on Joker, Harley and to a lesser extant, Batman. Old Bats is in it for two crucial scenes, one of which had me give out a roaring cheer, as it’s the type of thing I signed up for when I shelled out 22 goddamn dollars to see this in VIP mode. I kept wishing the whole time that I could make my own edit with all of David Ayer’s footage, because there’s so much gold found onscreen, and I know there’s more to be mined on the floors of his editing room, left there by the prudish anxieties of studio heads that just don’t. Ever. Learn. I want to see Batman and his villains thunder out in this blooming DC franchise, and while the rest of the more obscure faces in the squad are fun, I was in it for the core villains. All the stuff with Joker and Harley is inspired, and the car chase where the Batmobile tears after Joker’s purple Hotwheels Lamborghini is pretty much the best part of the whole film. I want more Batman and Co., for shit sake. In any case, there’s a lot of fun to be had, an endless grab bag of stylistic tricks, fonts, gimmicks, colors, sounds and chaotic hullabaloo running around. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Tough shit. It’s certainly not a terrible movie, and I feel many critics resorted to the oft employed ‘knee jerk’ reaction instead of internalizing it all before brandishing pen and keyboard. Critics are a spastic lot of baboons who have have a tendancy, especially these days, to jump the gun and hurl verbal feces at stuff before it’s had a chance to sink in. I’ll concede that there are huge issues, but huge amounts of fun can be found too. Or not. It’s up to you. I certainly had some fraction of a blast watching it, and the only way I can describe the thing as an whole is the Looney Toons having a food fight with a bunch of fluorescent Lucky Charms. If that abstract picture chimes with you, chances are you’ll at least get some kind of kick from the this baby, and probably be just as perplexed by certain areas as I was. Good luck.
Doubt is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. From the Oscar-nominated writing to the air-tight direction to the spellbinding performances, it’s a precision-tooled work from a master storyteller who has an amazing grasp on what he wants to say. Adapted from his Pulitzer winning play of the same name, writer-director John Patrick Shanley crafted one of the most thought-provoking films from 2008 with Doubt, a piece of work that scorches the nerves because of how vital and possible all of it feels. Set in the 1960’s at a NYC Catholic school, Doubt tells the story of a priest who is accused of improper behavior with one of his altar boys. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forceful as ever, is Father Flynn, a seemingly good and decent man who takes a liking to the only black student/altar boy in the school. The scarily intense Meryl Streep is Sister Beauvier, the main accuser, who teams up with another nun, the fragile Sister James, played by Amy Adams, in order to try to bring Flynn down. Sister James is the one who thinks that something improper has occurred; she doesn’t have definitive proof but she merely thinks that something bad has happened. Shanley asks his viewers to make a decision at the end of the film as to who was right, who was wrong, who was lying, and who was telling the truth. This is a hard film to review without spoiling because there’s little to no fat on the bones of the story, with each scene feeding into the one previous and the one following. Every piercing line of dialogue is important to the overall narrative and every moment in each of the three central performances are so integral to the film’s outcome that it becomes a tricky movie to discuss without giving everything away.
And then you have an emotionally shattering Viola Davis, who stole some heartbreaking scenes as the altar boy’s deeply concerned mother; there’s not a false note played by any of these superlative performers, all of whom were bestowed with Oscar nominations for their riveting portrayals. With Doubt, what I think Shanley was trying to get his audience to ask themselves is: How do we really know what goes on behind a closed-door? Is it enough to simply think that someone has done something wrong before you attack their character? What is a person’s moral compass made up of, and how do we truly know the people we work and live with? How do we decide who is right and who is wrong when all of the facts aren’t made clear? Working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shanley brought an appropriately chilly visual aesthetic to the film, with Deakins stressing grays and browns and darkly lit interiors with tons of Dutch angles and long takes that maximize the dramatic potency of every face-off between the verbally sparring actors. Every line of dialogue crackles with authority, especially when spoken by Hoffman and Streep, and Adams, in the film’s most layered role, did excellent work, painting a portrait of a confused woman who may or may not have started something she has no way of ever controlling. And most importantly, Shanley knew exactly how to wrap up his story, and during the film’s final, stinging moments, you’ll be left with a lot of fodder for discussion after the final credits have rolled.