Saturday, December 24, 2016

Movie Reviews: Suicide Squad, Train to Busan

Suicide Squad
directed by David Ayer
I had heard wildly different things about this film, which is based on a DC comic book team of antiheroes. Some people claimed that it was overwrought, poorly written and incoherent. Other people claimed it was pretty good. Still others stated that it was sexist, racist, and any other "ist". After watching it I can safely say yes to all of those claims. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as some people said it was. On the other hand it isn't the "serious" work that The Dark Knight was. I was never a huge DC comics fan so I didn't go into this movie with any familiarity with the characters. If you were a DC fanboy sitting down to critique this film I can certainly understand how you might have looked askance at the page to screen translations. As I wasn't a DC fanboy all of that baggage went right over my head. I didn't have the massive expectations I would have had if I were a fan of the comic book.  I'll have to check with my brother, who has an encyclopedic knowledge all all things comic related, to see what he thought of the adaptations. I was also interested in watching the movie because it was done by the same director who helmed End of Watch, Sabotage and Fury. The film reunited Will Smith and Margot Robbie who had pretty good chemistry in Focus. And it featured a bravura performance by Jared Leto which seems to have been severely and choppily edited. For what it's worth I liked this movie a little better than the last Captain America movie. That may not be saying all that much but Suicide Squad is fun to watch, regardless of some of the logical and moral inconsistencies.

Just before he left office, President Eisenhower gave a remarkably prescient warning of the nascent but growing power of the military-industrial complex, that symbiotic business relationship between the military, the intelligence establishment and large corporations. This "deep state" formulates and carries out policy regardless of who the President may be. It may keep secrets from elected representatives up to and including the President. It does what it has to do to maintain its power inside and outside of the United States. It is willing to use violence at both a personal and institutional level against anyone who threatens its interests. One such functionary of this deep state is intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Waller is, to put it mildly, not a good person. In her job she doesn't think she can afford to be. Like many people near the top of a social pyramid Waller believes that the national interests and her interests coincide. In a post-Superman world where aliens and super powered criminals are becoming more common, Waller convinces her bosses in the military and intelligence hierarchy that the U.S. needs a team of its own that can fight back against threats to the U.S. But it's not just self-defense that animates Waller or her associates. They have all sorts of dirty deeds that need doing. Heroes won't volunteer for those sorts of missions nor can heroes be controlled. Waller has conceived of a team that can be used for any sort of job while giving the American state plausible deniability. This team will be made up of criminals serving life sentences. They won't exactly be given a choice to say no. Waller can be very persuasive when she wants to be.
This team will include:
  • Deadshot (Will Smith) a preternaturally talented assassin who is skilled with almost every weapon in existence and never misses. He's killed more people than cancer.
  • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) the former psychiatrist and current lover of the Joker. She makes up for her petite size with ferocity, insanity and a baseball bat.
  • El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) a LA gang leader with the ability to create and summon fire at will. He's currently refusing to do so as penance for his crimes. He's become a pacifist.
  • Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) A self-centered bad-tempered Australian thief, bank robber and all around thug who's deadly with the titular weapon.
  • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) A mutant man who has regressed to reptillian status but gained super strength, virtual immunity to small arms fire and a very bad temper along the way
  • Slipknot (Adam Beach) a mercenary/robber who can climb anything
Coming along to watch over this group and ensure that Waller's goals are met are Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a swordswoman of impressive abilities who has a sword that eats souls. Someone who is either a disposable team asset or a team supervisor depending on whom you ask is June Moore (Cara Delevingene), an archaeologist who is possessed by an ancient goddess/demon known only as The Enchantress. Waller thinks she has The Enchantress under control. Colonel Flag is in love with June. He doesn't like Waller forcing June to summon The Enchantress. Orders may be orders but you can only push a man so far. The team is hastily put together to deal with a threat Waller refuses to tell them much about. All they need to know is that all of existence (or at least all of Midway City is at stake). But the Joker (Jared Leto) wants his lady Harley Quinn back; he's on the team's trail. Deadshot doesn't like taking orders from anyone, least of all Flag, whom he views as hypocritical. As a decorated soldier Flag doesn't like working with murderous criminals. There is a lot of (male) fan service in this movie. Margot Robbie spends most of the film in a very tight top, hot pants and fishnets.  The camera shows her a lot of love. Smith and Robbie get most of the film's best lines. I wouldn't say Davis shone in this film but she does embody the self-serving bureaucrat to a T. I would say don't get on her character's bad side but the issue with her character is that she doesn't really have a good side. Everyone is a just a tool she uses to reach a goal. She may be less than honest about that at times but that part of her character is fixed. You are valued by Waller only as long as you are useful to Waller. Waller is mannish, self-serving and almost completely without humor. She reminds me of a few bosses who are best forgotten.

The movie suffers logically and narratively from some of the decisions made by the higher ups. If you are concerned that powerful entities can't be properly controlled then why include on your team at least two people with unknown upper limits to their power. And though she does a great job with the character, Robbie at 26 is probably a bit too young to be a psychiatrist. But that's just a minor quibble. I was intrigued/impressed by Leto's slinky metrosexual gangster interpretation of the Joker. He should have been given a lot more to do in this film. It's not quite a cameo role but Leto is not on the screen that often. This is not the tour de force definitive interpretation of the Joker which we saw from Heath Ledger or even the manic prankster that Jack Nicholson provided. But it could have been. The energy and weirdness increase when the camera's on Leto. The special effects are decent. The film has the day-glow look of a classic DC comic.
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Train to Busan
directed by Yeon Sang-ho
This is the movie that Cell should have been. You could have fallen asleep after the first five minutes of Cell, awakened as the credits were rolling and truthfully not missed all that much. Train to Busan maintains tension and excitement for the better part of two hours. Train to Busan is a South Korean zombie movie which, surprise, surprise, primarily takes place upon a train. There aren't any superheroes or special forces soldiers who suddenly reveal themselves to save the day. There are just normal everyday people who, when forced into desperate circumstances, make choices which reveal what sort of people they are. For some of the people the decisions they make are a surprise. For others the choices they make are completely in keeping with their previously declared beliefs, for good or bad. If you spend all day in a business where you have to look out only for yourself and stop others from stealing your work can you put that viewpoint away during a crisis? If you have created or are in the process of creating the next generation will you have a more altruistic or even self-sacrificial outlook? It's hard to say. People do take risks for their children which they wouldn't and arguably shouldn't do for other people. That's selfishness I suppose but it's a sort of selfishness which is both rational and hard-wired. If you can't stand violence or don't like zombie movies then this film is probably not something you should bother watching. If you enjoy zombie movies then this is a worthwhile entry into the genre. There's a slight slowdown in the final third of the movie but nobody's perfect. This film doesn't make tremendous new advances in the zombie mythos. It's just a rollercoaster ride (or rather a train ride) of thrills and chills that will keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. It also has an emotional core which may resonate with many people. There are families, related by blood and by sacrifice, who are trying to survive. 
A divorced mutual fund manager (Gong Yoo) has a combative relationship with his ex-wife and a distant relationship with his young daughter. The fund manager also has to make cold heartless decisions at work, something which he dismisses as merely business. He loves his little daughter though. He constantly tells himself that he's busting his behind for her good. His daughter (Kim Su-An) doesn't understand why her parents don't love each other any more. She loves them both. She's sad because her father missed her school recital. She wants to visit her mother in Busan. Her father thinks she's too young to travel by herself. And frankly he's too busy to take a day off work to escort her, not that he really wants to see his ex-wife anyway. Obviously though the father relents. On the train he and his daughter run into a lower class couple-a rather bossy pregnant woman (Jung Yu-Mi) and her swaggering and endearingly protective macho husband (Ma Dong-seok). There's also an unpleasant corpulent CEO, an energetic high school baseball team, and two elderly sisters on the train among other characters. Unfortunately for the characters just before the train departs, a strange woman gets on board. She's infected. And she's viral. There's an outbreak. Unlike World War Z we rarely see any guns or military. These people are on their own.

This is one of the better zombie films around. You really feel for the characters. The movie smartly switches back and forth between the isolation of the people trapped on the train and the larger hints that no place in the country is safe. The film is smart. There aren't too many people who do stupid things. There is male heroism. This film will almost certainly be remade for the Western audience. Do yourself a favor and see the original. It's full of high quality production and camera work.
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