Archive for August, 2016

War Dogs (dir. Todd Phillips)

Posted: August 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

“War Dogs” is the story of two guys who sold weapons to the U.S. government during the Iraq War. The Bush administration, facing flack from giving most of the contracts to Halliburton and other companies with connections to the administration, opened up bidding on government contracts to any outfit willing to make an offer, no matter how big or small. Most of the contracts were for large things, like tanks and missiles, and the big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin snatched those up. But the small contracts, the ones for a couple of hundred guns or some rounds of ammunition, those were too small for the big boys to bother with, and that allowed people like Efraim (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) to accumulate big bucks selling those instruments of war and death to their government. They profited off of the outsourcing of instruments of war. Now, doesn’t this sound like a story that could really take the U.S. government, the military-industrial complex, and the Iraq War to task? Well…”War Dogs” isn’t really interested in politics, except on a superficial level. No, the movie is mainly concerned with whether the rules within a broken system are followed, and not really about the system itself. The film doesn’t really have a problem with the system, and it barely discusses the Iraq War, except as a backdrop for the main character’s business opportunity. When the main characters in the film are punished, it’s for breaking an embargo (a rule), and trying to not pay two business associates. If this film is attacking anything, it’s attacking business partners who double-cross each other. The business itself the film seems agnostic on.

When the film begins, David is a massage therapist with a girlfriend (Ana de Armos) who is unexpectedly pregnant. The girlfriend, named Iz, is only in the film to give David a motive to get into the business, a reason to keep things secret, and as a reason to later achieve redemption. Her character is an empty cipher to drive David’s character arc, and it’s a shame she’s not more developed than that, because de Armos brings a sweet and likeable screen presence to an empty character, indicating that with a fully fledged character she could have really been something in this film. Oh well. At the same time, David runs into an old middle school friend, Efraim, who is already doing small gun and equipment sales to the government and wants David to be his partner to expand his business, AEY Inc (the letters don’t mean anything). Seeing the money he could be making, David joins Efraim despite being opposed to the Iraq War, and before you know it, David and Efraim are trying to get a shipment of Italian guns to Iraq after Italy banned the export of weapons to Iraq. This involves David and Efraim flying to Jordan, the country they are able to get the guns to be shipped to, and driving it into Iraq themselves to complete the deal.

The film is directed by Todd Philips, known mostly for comedies like “Old School”, “Road trip”, and “The Hangover”, so it’s no surprise that “War Dogs” is a legitimately funny film. A lot of the humor just comes from seeing two twenty-somethings with no real grasp of world politics and international business dealings try to procure and deliver massive quantities of arms to the government for war. Efraim is a pretty solid salesman and bullshit artist, and David is intelligent but also more of a worrier and a realist, leading to an Odd Couple-like push and pull between the two, and very different reactions to difficulties or oddities place in their war. There are some silly jokes too, like a man playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to an old folk’s home, but most of the humor is the result of placing relatively normal people into the extraordinary situations their business takes them in.

It’s pretty clear that the film is attempting to emulate some other, better movies. The voice over, fast pace, and general let’s-make-something-illegal-and-dangerous-look-fun style of Scorcese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is here. The subject matter of this film overlaps a bit with Andrew Niccol’s underrated film “Lord of War” about an illegal gun trafficker as well. The difference is that both of those films, while being very stylish, had messages about their subject matter. “War Dogs” is a bit shallower and doesn’t really seem to indict the business the main characters are in, so much as it indicts their specific conduct within it.

The biggest chunk of the plot involves David and Efraim taking up a very large contract for the government, the centerpiece of which is 100,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition (to arm the Afghani people against the Taliban). To obtain such a large order of ammo, they make contact with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, very good in such a little role), a real-deal illegal arms dealer who is on the terror watch list. Since he is barred from doing business with the U.S. government directly, Girard is willing to sell the ammunition, which he has obtained from old Soviet-era stockpiles in Albania, to David and Efraim, which they can then sell to the U.S. at a profit. David has reservations, but they ultimately agree with to the deal. The problem becomes when they find out the ammo is not Soviet or Albanian, but actually Chinese in origin. The U.S. has had an arms embargo against China ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre, and so the government will not buy Chinese bullets. That’s when the law breaking comes in, and David and Efraim come up with the bright idea to repackage the bullets to both hide their origin and put them in lighter containers to cut down on their shipping costs.

This makes the business far more dangerous, plus Efraim becomes increasingly greedier, and double-crosses start happening. All of these details, including how their plan works and the nuts and bolts of it, are interesting to watch and unfold, but in a film that deals with such big issues it’d be nice if the film’s main concern was maybe the war, or guns, of the flow of weapons, or the business of war…and not just Capitalists suffering because they jerk each other around. This movie is okay with the status quo, it just wants the shitty game to be played by the rules.

“War Dogs” is an enjoyable, fun, and entertaining film with a kick ass soundtrack and interesting subject matter. It’s just really damn shallow, and it’s obvious the filmmakers thought this film was of a higher quality than it is, judging by such pretentious touches like beginning sequences with title cards featuring quotes of dialogue you will later here in that sequence. I saw a Twitter review that compared these to “Frasier”, and they were right. Also, the voiceover is pretty lousy in that it tells without showing, and exists to awkwardly push the movie forward from scene to scene when the movie fails to have a more organic and less awkward way of propelling itself forward.

It’s a perfectly good, funny movie. It also has one hell of a great last scene, and the closing credits end with one of my favorite songs: “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen. But this subject matter was ripe for something deeper, more intelligent, and just better. B.

 

“Sausage Party”, an R-rated animated comedy about anthropomorphic food, is also a feature length argument for atheism and against religious belief.  It seems Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who co-wrote this film, are more than a little interested in religion. They also wrote “This is the End”, which seemed to be a pro-Christian movie endorsing the Rapture, and also are producing “Preacher”, the TV series based on an anti-theist (but not atheist) comic book.  Now they give us a movie that loudly and with no subtlety argues that religion is a complete lie existing solely to make people less afraid of death.  That lie has spun to cause more harm than good, and should now be eradicated. But, the film argues that people need something else to belief in and live for if it is taken away, and the film has a line or two of dialogue talking to atheists, saying that you can’t win people over if you make those people feel stupid for those beliefs (even if those beliefs are stupid). Whether the film is arguing that religion needs to be replaced by revolution (the food in the film seem to launch an all-out revolution against the human race) or by Satanist hedonistic sex orgies, well…the film is more about diagnosing the problem than offering the solution.

Any sort of anti-religious message, no matter how much I may agree with it, wouldn’t matter if the film didn’t work as a comedy. Thankfully, in a summer that has given us lackluster comedies like “Neighbors 2” (by these same writers) and “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, “Sausage Party” is a thoroughly hilarious film that uses scatological humor, profanity, lame puns, and animated visual gags to their full potential to create a film that is chocked full of laughs in almost every frame. Your miles may vary, obviously, but most of the jokes landed for me (yes, even the puns) and I laughed heartily at the vast majority of the film’s jokes. It may be a small group of films, but “Sausage Party” is right up there with “The Invention of Lying” as one of the funniest atheist films ever made.

The film largely takes place in Shopwell’s grocery store. It’s approaching July 4th and the hot dogs and the buns are hoping to be bought so they can fuck in “the great beyond”, their vague notion of the afterlife, which commences when one of the gods (humans) takes them from the store. Every morning as the store opens, the food sing a song dedicated to their love of the gods and their judgment and wisdom, and the food’s hope of being chosen to enter this paradise. Yeah, the film wastes no time into setting up its message about religion with a funny Disney-esque song. What’s funny is that these “gods” are universally bad people in the movie. The manager who opens the store (Paul Rudd) and various cashiers and customers are all depicted as jerks. The most sympathetic human we meet is a junkie (James Franco), which should tell you something. I suppose this is part of the point, as in the Abrahamic religions at least the god (Yahweh, Allah) is a huge asshole (read The Bible or the Quran) but people still worship him and think him to be loving and benevolent.

We meet Frank (Seth Rogen), a hot dog in a package waiting to enter the great beyond. His girlfriend is a bun in a neighboring package, Brenda (Kristin Wiig, who gets more laughs in 1 minute of this film than the entire “Ghostbusters” reboot had in its whole running time). Brenda is animated to look like a shapely woman with breasts and an ample ass because, well, cartoon logic. Frank shares a package with a stubby, somewhat defective hotdog named Barry (Michael Cera), who will go on his own journey. One day, a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store, suffering from PTSD. He knows the truth,  that the “gods” are “monsters” that eat the food, and there is no paradise of the Great Beyond. Honey Mustard even tells the audience this, as the camera allows him to deliver the news that what we believe is bullshit directly to the viewer, pointing at us. Again, this movie is not for fans of subtlety. Most of the food shrugs off this knowledge, but Frank is curious. After a shopping cart accident leaves Frank and Brenda stranded in the store away from their package mates, who have been sold off, they set off on a journey back to their appropriate aisle. Frank, however, remembers Honey Mustard saying that another item, a bottle of alcohol named Firewater (Bill Hader), had told Honey Mustard to keep quiet about what he saw. Frank decides to seek Firewater out, and learn the truth about the great beyond once and for all.

Meanwhile, a Douche (Nick Kroll), who has the Jersey Shore-like personality his name would imply, is angry at Frank for the cart spill, which left Douche with a crack in his wide and a bent applicator. He ends up sucking liquid out of other food (from a dying juice box to various alcohol bottles) to get “juiced up” and goes on a revenge quest to kill Frank and Brenda.

Frank and Brenda aren’t alone on their journey. They are joined by a Jewish Bagel (Edward Norton) and an Arab lavash (David Krumholtz), whose relationship is a simplistic but funny parallel of the Israeli-Palestine border dispute (they share an aisle but bicker over territory). Vash, the lavash, also thinks the Great Beyond involves being slathered in 72 bottles of extra virgin olive oil, an obvious reference to a certain Muslim belief held by some of the faith, and shows that these different foods have different interpretations of their Great beyond myth, as well as different cultures. It could be easily argued that the characters in the film all hew to racist and ethnic stereotypes, but that’s sort of the point. Many Disney animated films, which this film is satirizing, rely on easy stereotypes in their characterizations. Pixar is less guilty of this, but by no means completely innocent.  “Sausage Party” is ultimately using the broad characterizations to make a point about the pointless divisions among the peoples of Earth while similarly using the same crude ethnic stereotyping that cartoons have been known for since the birth of animation. You can argue the film wants to have its cake and eat it too by using stereotyping for humor while at the same time commenting on it, and it certainly is, but there’s obviously no malice behind it.  The film is using this to argue later that the people of Earth of should get pest petty squabbles and divisions to join together to solve the real problems facing them.  When our main group is later joined by a lesbian taco, Teresa (Selma Hayek), we get a little spin on how religion places arbitrary rules on people which leads to them having internalized anguish and pain, including the shaming of homosexuals, premarital sex, and other so-called morals that don’t actually harm people.

There are many other parallels to religion. One character finds a cookbook, definitive proof that the humans eat food, and other food argue that it’s “only a theory”, or that their beliefs are more pleasant than the harsh reality being offered so they will choose the more pleasant belief. By simplifying the pro-religion arguments to having cartoon food whine about them, it exposes the problems with general apologetics in a better way than most atheist arguments can (plus, most people walking in to this film won’t know it’s an atheist argument, so they’ll be disarmed). Honestly, much like the “Purge” movies beat you over the head with their anti-economic inequality arguments, “Sausage Party” likewise is so blunt and obvious with its anti-religion argument that you’d have to be pretty fucking dense to not get it.

The more important thing, though, is that this film does its basic job of being superbly funny. From the little details in the background animation (many of which I’m sure I missed on a first viewing) to the horrifically funny violence against food, to the inventive objects which the film chooses to make sentient (a condom), this is a film jammed with things to smile, chuckle, and laugh at. The highbrow smart messaging actually works with the lowbrow humor of puns, scatological jokes, animated violence, and sex humor. When the horribly bad and poorly animated “Foodfight” was finally released, and it had weird adult humor, it seemed odd for a PG film. “Sausage Party” at least has the courage of its convictions and makes the film go as hard R as it can get. Both films have a similar premise, but “Sausage Party” is infinitely better animated, infinitely funnier, and smarter by a large amount. After a sea of disappointing comedies, “Sausage Party” is a breath of fresh air in that it is truly funny. By far the funniest film Rogen and Goldberg have written since “Superbad”. You will laugh, and you will laugh hard.

If I had to quibble with something, it would be that the film doesn’t clearly distinguish the rules as far as what objects are alive and which are not. Condoms and Toilet Paper are a yes, but cooking utensils, books, and shopping carts are not. Honestly, though, this is a film where hotdogs have legs and gloves, so I’m not going to be picky about realism here.  “Sausage Party” delivers on every level you want it to deliver on, and so for its own niche genre of R-rated animated atheist screeds, it is the pinnacle of its genre. A

The key to understanding “Bad Moms” comes from two of its minor, male characters. The main character, Amy (Mila Kunis) has a husband named Mike (David Walton). Mike is a lazy, stupid man who takes his wife for granted and is cheating on her via an online affair. He’s not a hugely bad person (he loves his kids), but he’s an asshole who, in couples therapy, can only complain that his wife doesn’t give him blowjobs anymore. It is hard to understand why the character of Amy, who looks like Mila Kunis, would ever be with this guy for as long as she has. Here’s the thing: pretend this was a Judd Apatow comedy. Mike would be the main character, wouldn’t he? A shlubbish manchild who lands a woman who is way too good for him and way out of his league? Hell, Seth Rogen has made a career out of playing this guy, albeit a more sympathetic version than the one in this film. “Bad Moms” is, essentially, telling its audience that these “heroes” from the male-centered raunchy rom-coms are A) a fantasy, and B) would be insufferable in real life if they existed.

The other character that helps to understand “Bad Moms” is Jessie (Jay Hernandez). Jessie is a super hot single dad (his wife died, so no chance he was divorced for being an asshole) who is super attracted to the main character despite little interaction (though, again, she does look like Mila Kunis), and who actually asks permission if he can go down on her again following a sexual romp. This guy is a bland, female fantasy of the perfect guy injected into the film solely to give Amy a love interest and to fulfill the fantasies of the female audience members. I have no problem with this. Why? Because at least 1/3rd of all female characters in male-aimed movies of this type fit this mold. You think supermodels would fall head over heels in love and lust with Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, or Michael Cera if they were just the average Joes they play in films? Of course not! On screen these actors have dated or hooked up with everyone from Emma Stone to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and other women way out of their league on a purely physical level (and, judging how much of assholes the characters they play can be sometimes…I’m looking at you Scott Pilgrim…a personality level too). We somehow accept this ridiculous male fantasy as the norm in films (not to mention all the TV sitcoms where shlubby men have wives too good for them), and by showing a male character in the same light that we normally see these female characters in, it causes a realization to dawn on the audience. It’s what the “Ghostbusters” reboot tried to do with the Chris Helmsworth character and failed miserably because it overplayed its hand, and because the female receptionist in the original film wasn’t the bimbo Helmsworth’s character was.

“Bad Moms” is basically a low-key feminist film that flips the genders on what would be a normal by-the-numbers raunchy comedy. It would be easy to imagine “Bad Dads” where single dads decide to shirk responsibility and embrace their inner bro in a movie. That movie would be horrible, BTW. “Bad Moms” works because it plays off of what society says a mother should be like, and how that works in opposition to what a real life woman needs beyond playing that role. This film isn’t ballsy enough to make the argument I would, that having children is a horrible decision and no one should procreate if they want a chance of true happiness, but it starts to come close to that in the beginning before copping out.  As it is, it’s hard to see the moms’ misery in the film and, despite their pleas that they love their kids, not think they would be infinitely happier if they hadn’t had the kids in the first place.

So the film revolves around Amy. She works for what we’re told is a coffee co-op but doesn’t exactly seem to be run like a co-op. She is stressed to the gills having to shuttle her two children to school and various activities while also doing housework and getting the family afloat. After a particularly bad day, and the revelation of her husband’s online infidelity, she decides at a public PTA meeting to stop trying so hard, let her kids be a bit more self-reliant, and have some me-time to drink it up, party, and pursue her own happiness. The film plays it safe by not making her a bad mom, exactly (she doesn’t abuse or neglect her kids), but it makes her a tad bit more of an absentee mother.  On this journey, she makes friends with two other moms whose kids go to school with hers.  There’s Kiki (Kristen Bell) who has many kids and a dictatorial husband. The film seems to imply she’s stuck in some sort of religious, Quiverfull-like marriage, but it doesn’t get explicit with it, sadly. Kiki is pretty shy and reserved, and doesn’t stand up for herself against her husband. She’s the obligatory goody-goody of the team. The other mother is Carla, played by Kathryn Hahn. Carla is an even more extreme version of the kind-of crappy mother Hahn played in “The Visit”. Carla is single, crude, and sexually aggressive to the extreme. She hits on other dads, and pretty much all men, and a few ladies as well. She’s the female version of the man-whore whom beds tons of women in the male raunchy comedies. Hahn steals this film by getting most of its biggest laughs. A scene where she demonstrates on Kiki’s hoodie how to deal with an uncircumcised penis is a bit of prop comedy that probably garners the film’s largest laugh.

Our three moms spend time hanging out, drinking, partying, going out to look for men, and discussing the difficulties of raising kids, some of whom they can’t relate to as people. They feel like genuine disparate women forming a friendship, even if some of their antics (the supermarket scene) feel less than real.  It helps that they are given an enemy to rally against. That would be Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) a rich mother who runs the PTA and is the kind of prissy, backstabbing Nazi mom emulating some new idea of perfection that we all picture Gwyneth Paltrow to be. The film never actually gives us any scenes with her kids, which is kind of interesting and I’m not sure if that’s on purpose or if there was just no room for them. In any case, she makes for a decent antagonist, representing the pressure society puts on mothers to be perfect.

As someone who is both male and will never have kids (thank you, vasectomy) I can’t say this film will hit me as well as it will its target audience, which is young-ish mothers who haven’t lost their sense of humor. What I can say is that it made me laugh a decent number of times and I ultimately enjoyed myself, as well as appreciated the subtle gender messaging going on by swapping the genders of traditional roles in this genre and letting the film play out without overt commentary on it.  The early moments of the film are perhaps edited in a way that undercuts laughs that the film could have gotten early on (many of the jokes in the first 15 minutes of the film are less successful than they could have been due to the pace of scenes being much too fast) but the film eventually settles into a nice rhythm.

“Bad Moms” isn’t a terribly great or original comedy, but it’s just funny enough to be worth the viewing. B

“Suicide Squad” is not the unmitigated disaster that was “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”. Let’s get that out of the way right now. “Squad” is more like a film that has a lot of potential, and that potential was unceremoniously smothered to death with a pillow. Casting Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was a genius move, and she gets the accent down and the basic touches of her character. But the film isn’t really interested in delving into her: the Stockholm Syndrome love affair with the Joker (Jared Leto), the PTSD trauma of that relationship and her childhood, the pain and the crazy. The film kind of wants to squish the character into the main character from the video game “Lollipop Chainsaw”. I mean sure, this version of Harley is sexy in an early 2000s-Scene, Manic Panic addict kind of way, but it’s not the character so much as it is a pin-up version of the character made flesh for people who only know of her from Hot Topic t-shirts. Hell, the movie seems to make her either a go-go dancer or an out and out stripper in one scene. There are also enough shots of her ass to make even Rob Zombie, who fills his movies with shots of his wife’s ass constantly, tell director David Ayer to lay off the ass shots (which are not as close and cut away from quicker than Zombie’s, but still.) Robbie does get some scenes as the pre-Harley doctor, Harleen Quinzel, and those are pretty nice, but all in all what the film gives us is the right actor for the right character with the script and director and costume designer messing that character up.

Let’s talk about the Joker, who appears in maybe 5 or 6 scenes of the film. This is kind of the same case as Robbie. You can tell Leto is having fun, and he has some good touches as the Joker (his laugh is unique to this actor’s portrayal of him), and you can sense a sort of Casanova-esque dangerous sexuality to this Joker that is interesting. But…he’s a gold chain-wearing, grill-sporting, Scarface-like White Gangsta wannabe Joker that feels like a parody pulled out of a Key & Peele sketch making fun of Ayer films like “Harsh Times”. I know Ayer is known for “street” films like “Times” as well as “Training Day” and “End of Watch”, but how on Earth did he think this Eminem Joker was a good idea? This guy is like if Kid Rock fell in an acid bath and his only memories were of 90s Blacksploitation gangsta movies. It’s a shame because, like Harley, this actor could have been a great Joker if it weren’t for the script, the direction, and the costume and art choice. I do like the Joker’s sunken in eyes and enhanced cheekbones which give him the look of Captain Howdy from “The Exorcist” though.

The rest of the characters I have less of an attachment to, so my feelings aren’t as strong. Will Smith’s Deadshot is more or less the main character, and he pretty much works the best of any character in the film. You get his motivations, you get his character, and he’s played about as well as it can be played. We also have movie critic-punching bag Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, who is useless, unfunny, and uninteresting. There’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc, who has almost no purpose in the film (his skills come in handy for one and only one scene), has dialogue you can barely understand, and isn’t nearly as big and menacing as he is in the comics. Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a woman with a sword that captures the souls of anyone killed with the sword. It seems like she might be an interesting character, but we get a brief flashback scene with her (less than one minute) and then she pretty much just slices CGI NPC baddies for the film and that’s it. There’s Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gang member who can harness and create fire, who is given a pathos rich story of having accidentally killed his family and, thus, sworn off using his powers. He’s given almost nothing to do as well, until the 2nd biggest baddie of the film needs to be defeated. This film gives us interesting characters and underwhelmingly uses them, does not do them justice, or has them in the film to serve a single purpose in a single scene. Diablo at least feels like a David Ayer character who just happens to have super powers, and at least it makes sense that he’s covered in tattoos unlike, say, the fucking Joker! Who exactly is the Joker’s tattoo artist? What tattoo artist is crazy enough to tattoo the Joker and expect to not be killed for pricking him the wrong way?

The plot is fairly simple. In the wake of superpowered humans (meta-humans is what the DC films are calling them) the government of the United States wants to be prepared in the event there is one day an evil terrorist superman. So, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose government position and rank are never made clear, has decided to assemble a team of enhanced persons and various crazies to be an army of expendable soldiers capable (?) of fighting off superpowered evil. The fact that the idea to create this army to repel danger is the actual instigator of the danger (Enchantress, played by Cara Delevingne) could have been used as political commentary about how the military can sometimes create more enemies in their quest to vanquish them (drone bombings that kill civilians and create more terrorists even though the target of the drone strike was a terrorist, for example), but the film isn’t interested in that. Hell, this film could have been used for commentary on the prison system, the mental health system, or a plethora of issues involving the military or national defense. Nope. This film can’t be bothered to be about anything.

Faster than you can say “Escape from New York”, the villains have explosives planted in their necks and are told to go along with a mission or their heads will be blown off. Slipknot (Adam Beach) is in the film only to demonstrate this. The mission ends up as such: Enchantress is an evil, ancient witch that can be controlled if someone has her heart. Waller has the heart and plans to control Enchantress to be a soldier and spy for the U.S. (her powers are demonstrated in a scene where she steals secrets from Iran). Well, Enchantress is able to steal her heart back, release her brother (another witch, I guess) and tries to build a weapon (which is kind of a cloud with garbage floating in it) to take over the world. Yawn. There’s some attempted drama added because Enchantress possesses the body of Dr. June Moore, who is loved by Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a military man charged with watching over the villains and leading the mission.

The film that follows from this plot has the visual darkness and grunginess of Zack Synder some of the time, but in some scenes it includes the neon stylings  of Mr. Joel Schumacher, and that’s one name no one ever wants to see associated with a film that contains Batman (Ben Affleck) again. The scene where Batman chases a car driven by the Joker with Harley in the passenger seat is all Schumacher in visual style, ending with a misogynist laugh of Batman punching Harley in the face to save her from drowning. The action scenes are dull as all hell. The cuts are so quick and the scenes are so dark that there’s no sense of special relations or where characters are moving. The villains are all disposable digital NPCS you don’t care about and aren’t at all menacing, making it just a dull collection of bullets being fired, baseball bats being swung, and boomerangs flying. Yawn. The climatic action scene, with are main characters taking on Enchantress, takes place in a thick cloud of wintergreen, making the scene both ugly and barely visible. I don’t know whose bright idea that was, but when you can barely see a climactic fight scene in a film where all of the action sequences have been lackluster and boring, it doesn’t help your movie. Also, Enchantress seems to have a lot of power (she can teleport anywhere at will, for instance) but the film pretty much just has her writhe around in a bikini surrounded by digital swirling clouds, like a poor man’s Gozer.

The film tries to be Marvel in upping the one liners and comedy beats, but the beats largely aren’t funny. Will Smith does his Will Smith-iest and Robbie is commendable in really committing to Harley, but the team lacks the chemistry and pizzazz of, say, the Guardians of the Galaxy to pull any of this off. It feels like what it is: forced banter. Aside from Deadshot and Harley, the other members barely seem to have any connection to the others. They don’t feel like a group that is bound together (which makes sense earlier in the film, but not in the third act where they all make the choice to fight together) but more like disparate parts that feel ill at ease with each other, because they all belong in different movies, away from each other (Ayer should direct the Diablo movie and only that one).

The film is not aggressively bad, but it is boring at times and really subpar. When you have the Joker, arguably the greatest comic book villain of all time, and Harley Quinn, a character who has never been in a feature film before and is already beloved, it seems like the world is your oyster as far as crafting a film that can really work. “Suicide Squad” feels like you gave someone all of the materials and blueprints to build the Taj Mahal, and they built the Mall of America instead, a bland consumer product. It feels like a very wealthy father gave his son an inheritance worth billions of dollars, and they spent it all on Hot Pockets. “Suicide Squad” is a mediocre film with elements that could have been used for a different, much better film, and while the film itself doesn’t inspire anger, the fact that great elements were wasted on it does. Also, this film has one of the best soundtracks as far as killer songs I have ever heard. I feel like most of the film’s budget went to music licensing rights. Those are wasted too.

“Suicide Squad” in that way is like the actual act of Suicide, a sad waste of great potential. “Suicide Squandered” would have been a better title. C.

P.S. Batman and The Flash make cameos in the film. They add almost nothing of interest to the movie.

 

“Nerve” is a largely fun film in which two teens engage in a high stakes, live-streamed competition of increasingly dangerous dares. It’s an enjoyable film for the majority of its run, despite being greatly hampered by only having a PG-13 ratings instead of the R this film’s subject matter cries out for, but by the end the film reveals itself to be a preachy anti-cyberbullying PSA, much like last year’s “Unfriended” was. Also, in an age where TV shows like “Mr. Robot” show a fairly realistic depiction of hacking and computer technology, I’m not sure why “Nerve” thinks it can get away with a depiction that feels closer to the 90s “Hackers” than real life.

Our protagonist is Vee (Emma Roberts), a mostly good girl who is dealing with wanting to go to an expensive art school across the country, but is worried about leaving her single mother (Juliette Lewis) behind. Her friends include Sydney (Emily Meade), an extrovert who we’re told sleeps around, but mostly just wears outfits where you can see her pierced nipples through her shirt. Sydney is currently playing an online game called Nerve. Basically, a player gets a dare, which is voted on (somehow) by the people watching the game, who pay $20.00 a day to livestream any of the players’ feeds. The dares increase in difficulty and danger as the reward money for each task escalates. What makes zero sense is that upon completion of a dare, the reward money is deposited into the player’s bank account, yet we’re told that if the player fails a dare or quits, the money is rescinded, so essentially only the grand prize winner at the end actually wins any money. If that is the case, why is any money deposited at all? It is not as easy to rescind a deposit as it is to make one, unless the film implies that all the money is just hacking that can be easily disabled.  But if that’s the case, who is doing the hacking?

See, the film runs into an issue when trying to describe how the game logistically functions. Supposedly, the watchers act as a hive mind, coming up with the dares and then voting on which dare to actually assign. The comparison the film is trying to make is something like 4chan or Reddit, where the users do create a hivemind mentality in the sites’ content. The issue, though, is that though sites still have admins who call the shots and deal with logistical issues. Nerve seems to not have a staff operating IT, bank deposits, settling ties or watcher disputes, or just general service issues. Also, who actually collects the money the watchers pay? Who profits off the operation of this game? The film never tells us. It just says that each player’s phone/computer is a server in which the game is hosted on, and that the code for the game is open source. Okay?

So anyway, through various plot happenings, Vee decides to become a player. She, of course, has a nerdy guy friend witch an unrequited crush on her, because this is a movie about teens. This is Tommy (Miles Heizer), but his unrequited love serves no purpose in the film, except to have Tommy tell Vee that she shouldn’t be doing what she is doing, and to have his jealousy and worry lead him to other information needed for the plot later. Honestly, this character could have functioned just as well if he were merely a concerned friend and not harboring unrequited feelings.

For her first dare, Vee has to kiss a stranger. She finds a guy reading her favorite book in a diner, and kisses him. The game knows Vee’s favorite book, because apparently once the game scans your fingerprint, it can hack all of your internet profiles and personal information. Gee, you wonder why the NSA or foreign governments don’t have that kind of power. The guy is Ian (Dave Franco), who the film tells us is cool because he’s handsome and rides a motorcycle. Anyway, for a little while the game seems to want to keep these two together, though why the watchers want this is not really clear. This leads to increasingly dangerous dares like walking out of a store with almost no clothes on (a fun sequence) and driving 50 mph on a bike while blindfolded.

As the film goes on the dares get more dangerous, and friends end up at odds with each other. The problem is the film’s PG-13 rating keeps this film from the level of realism it is so desperately trying to grasp for. If this Nerve game existed in real life, dares would not stop at “Jackass” and “Fear Factor”-type stunts. They would involve murder, torture, rape, and other heinous crimes, because people on the internet don’t hold back. By having the watchers limit themselves in the film, the film is undercutting its basic message, which is that people are cruel to each other on the internet because they don’t have to see the people they hurt actually hurt in real life, and because they can hide behind the layer of anonymity the internet provides. When the film arrives at the finale, which involves watchers urging one player to shoot another, we get close to that, but not close enough. If the watchers are willing to kidnap someone and commit cybercrimes, why are these immoral bullies okay with their most dangerous dare being shooting someone in places where they could easily live. Also, when one character is shot, and presumed dead, it’s not the watchers empathy that kicks in, but rather a dubious hack that doxxes (what’s the plural of “dox” anyway?) the watchers, so their fear of being revealed ends the game, not any sense of morality.

So yeah, the film exists as a watered down and tame argument against cyberbullies on Twitter, 4chan, and other sites that hide behind fake avatars or eggs and demean others. It cops out by not truly making the film’s watchers quite cruel enough, and by having the watchers end the game through self-preservation and not some moral reason. At least “Unfriended” was only interested in revenge and assumed psychopaths would only change their behavior out of self-interest (to not be murdered) rather than ethics.

I blame the film’s directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, for wanting this film to be PG-13 so “teens could see it” (teens see R rated films by sneaking in or Netflix…you did this for monetary reasons). They also directed the fake documentary “Catfish”, also an alarmist movie about the internet, and two “Paranormal Activity” movies. They clearly wanted to make a message movie, but held themselves back and cut their own ankles on this one.

Still, the film is fun as a light, airy diversion. The actors are having fun and have chemistry, and the level of danger in this film and the how-will-they-get-out-of-this-one action is just slightly higher than a, say, “Adventures in Babysitting” film. Seeing kids have a night on the town with increasing danger is a somewhat 80s genre of film we don’t see much of, and this was a fun film, if in the end rather stupid, preachy, and watered down. B-