“SUICIDE SQUAD” (2016) Review

 

“SUICIDE SQUAD” (2016) Review

The year 2016 has proven to be a strange one for Warner Brothers Studios and fans of DC Comics. Their creation – the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise had released two films that proved to be box office hits, yet critical flops. One of those movies was the Zack Synder film, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. And the other was the summer film, “SUICIDE SQUAD”

Three years before the release of these two films, the DCEU franchise witnessed its kickoff with the release of “MAN OF STEEL”, another origin tale of Clark Kent aka Superman. Whereas “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” seemed to be more of a direct sequel to the 2013 movie, the narrative for “SUICIDE SQUAD” seemed to be something of a reaction to Superman’s death in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”.

Written and directed by David Ayer, “SUICIDE SQUAD” began several months after the previous film. Amanda Waller, director of the Federal agency Advanced Research Group Uniting Super-Humans (A.R.G.U.S.), convinces the Defense Department to allow her to assemble “Task Force X”, a team of dangerous criminals imprisoned at Belle Reve Prison in Louisiana, to engage in high risk black ops missions. The criminals that she has selected are:

*Floyd Lawton aka Deadshot – an elite marksman and professional assassin, who has a warm relationship with his only daughter

*Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn – a former psychiatrist and crazed supervillain who is in a relationship with the psychotic gangster “the Joker”

*Chato Santana aka El Diablo – a former Los Angeles based gang member with a powerful pyrokinetic ability, who had turned himself in after accidentally killing his wife and children

*George “Digger” Harkness aka Captain Boomerang – an Australian-born thief with an unpredictable personality and a talent with deadly boomerangs and knives

*Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc – a supervillain who suffers from a skin condition that causes him to develop reptilian features and a powerful strength

*Dr. June Moone aka Enchantress – an archaeologist who is possessed by an ancient evil force that transforms her into a powerful sorceress

*Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot – a mercenary and assassin who specializes in tactical grappling and scaling

Waller assigns an Army Special Forces officer named Colonel Richard “Rick” Flagg to lead the squad into the field. He is assisted by a group of Navy SEALS led by GQ Edwards, and a widowed Japanese vigilante and martial arts expert named Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana, who also happens to be a friend of Flagg’s. While Waller and Dr. Moore are in Midway City, the latter transforms into the Enchantress and manages to escape from the former’s control. The Enchantress then frees her brother Incubus from a South American artifact, allowing him to take control of a Midway City businessman’s body. While both the Enchantress and Incubus besiege the city, the former transforms many of its citizens into her monstrous minions and decides to build a mystical weapon to eradicate mankind. Meanwhile, Waller finally decides to deploy the squad to extract a high-profile mark from the besieged Midway and from possible capture by the Enchantress.

As I had earlier pointed out, the moment “SUICIDE SQUAD” hit the theaters, most of the critics trashed it. I must admit that I was baffled by their reactions. It is one thing to trash the DCEU’s earlier entry, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, even though I did not agree with their negative opinions. But “SUICIDE SQUAD” got trashed as well? Two DCEU movies in one year?

“SUICIDE SQUAD” was not perfect. One of the problems I had with the movie’s narrative is that the setting struck me as a bit constricted, considering its 123 minutes running time. At least two-thirds of the film was set during one night in the downtown area of a major city. Also, I never understood why Amanda Waller and Rick Flagg went out of their way to keep the identity of the high-profile mark that the squad had to rescue a secret. Even if they had revealed the truth to Deadshot and the squad’s other members, the latter would have been forced to go ahead with the rescue, due to the nano bombs injected into their necks that coerced the squad to cooperate.

Speaking of the nano bombs, I found myself thinking about the character portrayed by Adam Beach, Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot. I hate to say this, but David Ayer really wasted his role. Unlike the other members of the Suicide Squad, there were no glimpses of his backstory in flashbacks. In fact, his name was not even mentioned in the scene in which Amanda Waller introduced her scheme to create the squad. Nor was he seen in the sequence in which Waller and Flagg “recruited” the other members. Audiences knew nothing about Slipknot’s role in the film, until he made his first appearance at a military base, where the other squad members had gathered. So . . . what was the point of Slipknot’s role in the movie? Utilizing a scene from one of the comic books for “Suicide Squad” in which Captain Boomerang managed to convince Slipknot to join him in an escape attempt from the military, he was merely used as a plot device to show what would happen to the squad’s other members if they try to escape. Death by an explosion from an injected nano bomb. That is all.

Despite the above problems I had with this film, overall, I liked it very much. Okay, who am I kidding? Hell, I loved this movie! It was a hell of a ride and a lot of fun. And it did a great job in expanding the DCEU even more. Just as Zach Synder had connected “MAN OF STEEL” with “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, David Ayer did the same by connecting the latter with “SUICIDE SQUAD”. More importantly, he also connected this movie with one of the upcoming DCEU films, “JUSTICE LEAGUE” in one scene featuring Captain Boomerang getting arrested by Barry Allen aka the Flash in a flashback and in a post-credit scene featuring Amanda Waller and Bruce Wayne aka Batman. The latter scene proved to be a special connection between Waller’s failed attempt to make the Enchantress a part of the squad, her files on other meta humans like the Flash and Aquaman, and Bruce Wayne’s government contacts that would allow her to avoid any consequences from the whole Enchantress/Midway City debacle.

I also enjoyed how “SUICIDE SQUAD” began with the introduction of the squad’s “recruits”. While Amanda Waller narrated, the movie embarked upon a series of entertaining flashbacks that revealed the squad members’ talents, crimes and how they were captured. Naturally, my two favorite backstories were about Deadshot and Harley Quinn. Both of them revealed how their encounters with Batman led to their incarceration. I was surprised to see another member of the future Justice League of America, namely the Flash, in Captain Boomerang’s flashback.

Another aspect of “SUICIDE SQUAD” that I found interesting was how the squad’s members managed to form a well tight unit on their own, even when their ties to others were either disconnected like Deadshot’s to his daughter Zoe during his time in prison; questionable like Harley Quinn’s disturbed and abusive romance with the Joker; and in the case of three other members, non-existent. El Diablo has spent most of his time in prison mourning over the family he had killed and indulging in self-isolation. Killer Croc’s reptilian appearance has led him to be isolated and reviled by his fellow criminals and society at large. As for Captain Boomerang, he made it quite clear in a flashback when he double-crossed a colleague that he preferred to work alone. Despite these disparate situations, the squad learned to work together. More importantly, they even learned to work with Rick Flagg, Katana and the Navy SEALs, despite the distrust between the squad and their military watchdogs.

There had been a good deal of criticism from critics and some fans about how Ayer dealt with the relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. Many seemed to believe that Ayer had whitewashed the abusive nature of their relationship. That is not the relationship I had seen on screen. It really was not that difficult for me to notice how the Joker seemed to be in control of their relationship. Flashbacks revealed how he had exploited her infatuation for him. I also noticed his disturbing penchant for infantilizing her at times. Even the wardrobe that Harley wore to Midway City seemed to indicate that the Joker regarded her as his possession – namely her “Daddy’s Lil Monster” T-shirt and “Puddin” choker:

And yet, I do not recall the Joker wearing any clothing or accessories hinting that he is Harley’s possession. Curious. In fact, the controlling nature of their relationship seemed indicative in other relationships in the movie. The Enchantress proved to be something of a control freak. Brimming with resentment over humanity for imprisoning her and her brother Incubus, the sorceress decides to mankind. And yet . . . she transformed many of Midway City’s citizens into her minions and seemed to be the dominant half of her relationship with Incubus. On the other hand, Amanda Waller seemed to be the “Queen of Control” in “SUICIDE SQUAD”. She uses her position as Director of A.R.G.U.S. to assume control of the criminals who form the squad. And to insure that they will cooperate, she has small nano bombs implanted in their necks. She also tried to use her possession of the Enchantress’ heart to control the latter. And she encouraged a romance between Rick Flagg and the Enchantress’ human identity, Dr. June Moone, to guarantee Flagg’s undivided cooperation.

What can I say about the cast? Personally, I thought the cast members were the best thing about “SUICIDE SQUAD”. I have not seen Will Smith in a really good movie since 2012’s “MEN IN BLACK III”. And I really enjoyed his entertaining, yet first-rate and ambiguous portrayal of sharpshooter Floyd Lawton aka Deadshot. Margot Robbie gave what has turned out to be a superb performance as the hilarious, yet somewhat insane Dr. Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn. Frankly, I think her performance was one of the best in the movie. Another performance that really impressed me came from Viola Davis, who nearly ruled above the others as the ruthless and diabolical Amanda Waller, Director of A.R.G.U.S. The ironic thing is that Waller’s character was not the movie’s main antagonist, yet Davis’ portrayal of her was so scary that she might as well have been.

Jay Hernandez was marvelous as the emotionally tortured Chato Santana aka El Diablo, whose guilt over his family’s deaths have led him to be reluctant to participate in the fight against the Enchantress. Karen Fukuhara was equally marvelous as Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana, the expert martial artist/swordswoman, who guarded Rick Flagg and mourned her dead husband with the intensity of El Diablo’s flames. Speaking of Rick Flagg, it is amazing that I have never noticed Joel Kinnaman before this movie. I was surprised to learn that he was not the first choice for the role, for I believe he fitted it like a perfectly well-tailored suit. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s role as Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc was not as big as I would have liked. But the British actor still managed to give a great performance as the isolated supervillain, who managed to maintain a healthy attitude about his own self-esteem . . . despite what others may have thought about him. The biggest surprise proved to be Jai Courtney’s portrayal of Australian criminal George “Digger” Harkness aka Captain Boomerang. I have seen Courtney portray a series of intense characters – both heroes and villains. I never knew that he had a talent for comedy. Because . . . dammit! The man was funny as hell.

I thought Jared Leto gave one of the most interesting and original portrayals of the D.C. Comics supervillain, the Joker, I have ever seen. It was . . . well, very dangerous, but in a very sexy way. A sexy Joker. I never thought I would ever say that about the famous villain. But Leto did give a rather sexy and entertaining performance. “SUICIDE SQUAD” also featured some solid supporting performances from the likes of Cara Delevingne as Dr. June Moone aka the Enchantress, Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne aka Batman, David Harbour as a Federal official named Dexter Tolliver, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as Zoe Lawton, Corina Calderon as Grace Santana, Scott Eastwood as Navy SEAL GQ Edwards, Common as a Gotham City criminal named Monster T and yes, even Adam Beach as Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot . . . despite his limited appearance.

Although I had a problem with director David Ayer’s use of the Slipknot character and other minor aspects of the narrative for “SUICIDE SQUAD”, I must admit that I enjoyed the movie a lot. Very much. In fact, it has become my favorite movie from the summer of 2016 and one of my favorite movies of the summer. Despite what other critics may have thought about it, I thought it was one hell of a film. I look forward to a sequel.

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“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

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“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

I am a big fan of time travel movies. Especially well written movies featuring time travel. Mind you, not all of the films and television episodes featuring this genre have impressed me. But once in a while, I have come across a handful that I have found particularly appealing. 

I never saw “KATE AND LEOPOLD” when it first appeared in movie theaters during the Christmas holidays in 2001. Looking back, I wondered why I never bothered to go to the theaters to see it. When I saw the original release date, I realized that I was more interested in watching “LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”. In fact, I became so obsessed with that movie that I forgot all about “KATE AND LEOPOLD”. I did not see the latter until it was released on DVD.

Co-written and directed by James Mangold, “KATE AND LEOPOLD” is a romantic-comedy fantasy about an English duke who accidentally travels through time from New York in 1876 to the present and falls in love with a career woman in early 21st century New York. The movie begins with Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Thomas Gareth Mountbatten, Duke of Albany attending a ceremony for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1876, where he spots amateur physicist Stuart Besser reacting to engineer Washington Roebling’s speech. Upon his return to his Uncle Millard’s Manhattan manor, Leopold is informed that his family’s depleted fortune needs to be replenished with a marriage to a wealthy American heiress. During a ball held in his honor, Leopold spots Stuart observing him. The 19th century aristocrat and tries to save the 21st century scientist from falling off the unfinished bridge; only to fall with the latter into a temporal portal between centuries. Leopold awakens in 21st century New York.

During his sojourn in 21st century New York, Leopold becomes acquainted with Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, a slightly cynical market researcher named Kate McKay and her younger brother Charlie, a cheerful, yet somewhat gauche and ambitious actor; after Stuart falls down his apartment building’s elevator shaft. Although Leopold has less trouble befriending the very friendly Charlie, he seemed to clash a good deal with Kate, who remains bitter over her breakup with Stuart. However, both Kate and Leopold grow closer after she arranges for him to appear in a margarine commercial. Friendship eventually develop into love, when Kate becomes aware of Leopold’s jealousy toward her relationship with her boss, J.J. Camden. But a bitter quarrel between the lovers over the margarine commercial, along with Stuart’s realization that Leopold needs to return to 1876 threaten to tear them apart.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” could have easily become one of those sweet, treacly love stories more suited for infatuated fangirls. The movie’s ending certainly seemed to hint a love story, straight from a romance novel. But the rest of Kate and Leopold’s romance proved to be a solid balance of romance, cynicism, slapstick humor and a touch of bitterness. Mangold and co-writer Steven Rogers’ screenplay allowed the story to rise above the usual schmaltz, thanks to their main characters. Kate McKay seemed like a far cry from the usual leading lady in a romantic comedy. Thanks to Mangold and Rogers’ writing and a sharp performance from Meg Ryan, Kate is an ambitious and cynical woman, who not only has a penchant for brutal frankness, but seems incapable of moving past her embittered breakup with Stuart. Leopold Mountbatten/Duke of Albany seemed more like a typical leading man in a romance. He is an English aristocrat with handsome features and impeccable manners. However, Hugh Jackman did an excellent job in conveying Leopold’s priggish and self-righteous personality, with a surprising penchant wallowing in illusions. Not what I would consider typical leads in a romantic comedy. Perhaps the Hollywood Foreign Press Association thought so, when they nominated Jackman for the Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Mangold and Rogers’ list of interesting characters continue with Kate’s ex-boyfriend, Stuart Bessner. Ex-boyfriends in a romantic comedy are usually assholes who make life difficult for the leading ladies. Stuart was not an asshole. But Liev Schreiber did such a marvelous job in not only conveying Stuart’s annoying traits – his verbosity, professional obsessions and lack of responsibility toward his personal life – but also allowing the audience to discover a very likable man beneath the irritating traits. I do not know about others, but I cheered when Stuart ended up with his own little romance by the end of the film. Now, if I had to choose the most irritating character in the movie, it would be Kate’s younger brother, Charlie McKay. I have not seen Breckin Meyer in anything else, but I have to give kudos to him for not only capturing Charlie’s irritating and boorish personality, but also making him very likable. Both Meyer and Ryan provided a marvelous and poignant moment in the film in which the two McKays bid each good-bye for the last time. It always leaves tears in my eyes. If there was one character who could have easily been labeled as the movie’s asshole, it would be Kate’s boss, J.J. Camden. Thanks to Bradley Whitford’s entertaining performance, J.J. is slightly boorish, controlling, and an egotist. Yet . . . he is not only likable, but also very forgiving. Despite his humiliation by Leopold, Kate not only kept her job, but also received a well-deserved promotion by a forgivable J.J. He turned out to be a decent sort in the end.

The movie also featured some memorable supporting performances. The American-born Philip Bosco gave a convincing performance as Leopold’s dependable valet, Otis. Paxton Whitehead was excellent as Leopold’s frank and disciplined Uncle Millard. In fact, I get the feeling that once Uncle Millward recover from his disappointment over Leopold’s marriage to Kate, he might come to admire her practicality, discipline and ambition. Natasha Lyonne gave a charming performance as Kate’s sweet secretary Darci, who happens to be a big fan of romance novels. Ebony Jo-Ann was wonderful as Stuart’s no-nonsense hospital attendant, Nurse Ester. Kristen Schaal was equally charming as Miss Tree, the wealthy American heiress whom Uncle Millard had marked as Leopold’s future wife. And I found it very difficult to view her as an unattractive woman, no matter how hard she tried to convey that image. The movie also featured Leopold’s funny quarrel with a NYPD beat cop over Stuart’s dog relieving himself on the city street. The cop was portrayed by none other than Viola Davis, who provided a sneak peak of those impressive acting skills that would make her a star before the decade ended. 

There were other aspects of “KATE AND LEOPOLD” that I enjoyed. I found Stuart Dryburgh’s photography of New York City – past and present – very impressive and colorful. I was especially impressed by his work in the 1876 sequences. His photography was helped by Stephanie Carroll’s set decorations, Jess Gonchor’s art direction and especially Mark Friedberg’s production designs for this particular sequence. Their combined worked helped Mangold do an exceptional job in re-creating 1870s New York City. I could also say the same about Donna Zakowska’s costume designs. I found them very attractive and an excellent reflection of the Gilded Age, as reflected in the image below:

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As much as I enjoyed “KATE AND LEOPOLD”, I must admit I had a major problem with it. My biggest problem with the script turned out to be the mode in which three of the characters used to time travel between 1876 and 2000 (or 20010). What did Mangold and Rogers used? A temporal portal situated mid-air around the Brooklyn Bridge. In order to access this portral, the time travelers had to fall from a high height – either from a scaffold in 1876 or one of the bridge’s steel girder in the 21st century. I realize that the two writers were trying to add some suspense and drama to the story’s method of time travel, but I thought it was a bit too much to force the characters to utilize what I feel is an unnecessarily difficult mode. I also found it odd that Mangold and Rogers would choose Mountbatten as Leopold’s surname. The name was adopted by the English branch of the Battenberg family in 1917, to counter the rising tide of anti-German sentiment during World War I Britain. It did not exist in 1876.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” would never make my list of top ten favorite time travel movies. I had no problems with James Mangold and Steven Rogers’ screenplay, despite its flaws, Mangold’s excellent direction or the marvelous cast led by Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. Frankly, I thought the movie had a very entertaining and charming story filled with some complex and interesting characters. But it is more of a romance film, instead of a time travel film. And that is why I view it as one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time.

“BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” (2013) Review

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“BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” (2013) Review

In the tradition of the HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT franchises, Hollywood has embarked upon another adaptation of a fantasy tale for children and young adults. The latest adolescent fantasy is an adaptation of an adolescent fantasy called“Beautiful Creatures”

The novel, written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, was published in 2009 and is considered the first in what should prove to be a literary series called Caster Chronicles. After Summit Entertainment’s success with the TWILIGHT movie franchise and Warner Brothers’ success with the HARRY POTTER films, the latter studio released BEAUTIFUL CREATURES to the movie theaters. Both the movie and the novel told the story about a teenager named Ethan Wate, who longs to escape the boredom of his South Carolina hometown, Gatlin. However, Ethan’s boredom disappears when he meets a mysterious new girl named Lena Duchannes. Not only do Ethan and Lena uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their town and especially their history that stretches back to the Civil War; Ethan discoves that Lena and members of her family are magic practitioners – who are known in their world as “casters”.

Lena’s talent as a “caster” also serves as an obstacle to her romance with Ethan. Her Uncle Macon Ravenwood disapproves of their growing romance and conspires with Ethan’s family friend, Amma; to keep the two separated. Ethan learns that on Lena’s 16th birthday, her true nature will steer her towards a light or dark path. And Lena fears of being consumed by evil and hurting those she loves. Even worse, the arrival of two powerful dark casters from the family hope to push Lena towards evil – her provocative cousin Ridley and her mother Sarafine, who forsees Lena becoming an even more powerful caster. Only Ethan believes that that Lena can determine her moral fate, due to her own choices.

I must admit that I really had no interest in seeing “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES”. When I saw its trailer, the movie struck me as another one of those adolescent fantasies along the lines of the TWILIGHT franchise. But with nothing to do that particular weekend, I felt bored and realized that I had not experienced a first viewing of a movie since the holiday season. So, I went to see it. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I cannot say that “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” is one of the best fantasy romances I have ever seen. And it did not strike me as particularly original. But I did enjoyed it.

As I had stated earlier, “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” does not strike me as an original film. It reminded me of numerous movie and television productions in which one half of a teen romance has magical or supernatural abilities. Two, I was a little disappointed that of all the “casters” in the film, audiences never saw Ethan’s friend, Amma, display her magical abilities. The script made a big deal in building up Amma’s abilities. But in the end, it never really delivered. And three, the whole idea of a “caster” being steered to one particular moral path after a certain period of time unpleasantly reminded me of that infantile 48 Hours Window of Opportunity rule from the television series, “CHARMED”. Fortunately, “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” rose above such simple-minded nonsense by the end of the movie. Speaking of the movie’s finale, I must admit that I was not that impressed by Lena’s final confrontation with her mother, Sarafine. It almost struck me as anti-climatic and its ending left a sour taste in my mouth.

However, there were many aspects of “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” that I enjoyed very much or I found admirable. First of all, I have to compliment Philippe Rousselot’s photography of the Louisiana countryside that served as South Carolina. I found it lush, colorful and sharp. I especially enjoyed those scenes that featured the Ravenwood estate. Despite my disappointment over the movie’s ending, I still enjoyed the movie’s plot. And as I had stated earlier, I am very relieved that Garcia and Stohl’s story rose above the usual black-and-white photography by the end. There was one particular scene that really blew my mind. It centered around Lena’s attack upon her cousin Ridley at a family dinner and it involved a spinning dinner table. I really wish I could describe this scene in more details, but I suspect one would have to see it in order to understand my appreciation of it.

The cast of “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” proved to be first rate. I wish I could say something about Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale’s performances as Lena’s grandmother and aunt. But the script did no really give them the opportunities to display their acting skills. Emmy Rossum was luckier. She really strut her stuff as the sexy and somewhat sardonic Ridley, who seemed willing to assist Sarafine’s efforts to corrupt Lena. Thomas Mann gave a rather humorous performance as Ethan’s laconic, yet witty friend, “Link”. Although her character was never given the opportunity to display any magical abilities, I must say that I really enjoyed Viola Davis’ excellent performance as Ethan’s tart-tongued and practical friend, Amma. Emma Thompson’s ability to utilize an American accent has improved in the past twenty years, especially in her duel performance as Lena’s mother Sarafine and Link’s mother, the sanctimonious Mrs. Lincoln. More importantly, she was superb as the manipulative and cold-blooded Sarafine – especially in one scene that revealed Sarafine’s possession of Mrs. Lincoln’s body. Jeremy Irons’ American accent struck me as somewhat shaky, but I certainly cannot say that about his performance as Lena’s concerned, yet controlling and slightly arrogant uncle, Macon Ravenwood. However, the movie more or less belonged to Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert as the two young lovers, Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes. One, the pair not only made a convincing pair of lovers, they had excellent screen chemistry. In fact, they complimented each other very well, thanks to Ehrenreich’s energetic performance as Ethan and Englert’s more subdued and moody portrayal of the introverted Lena.

I noticed that “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES” did not turn out to be the hit that Warner Brothers had hoped it would be. I could make an attempt on analyzing the movie’s box office performance, but I find it would be irrelevant. To be honest, I really do not care one way or the other about its box office performance. Despite some flaws in the movie’s last hour, I really enjoyed“BEAUTIFUL CREATURES”. It was a surprising treat in the midst of the dismal 2013 winter movie season.

“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Below is my review of the 2009 political thriller, “STATE OF PLAY”, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck:

“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I never found the movies released during the first three months of 2009 that impressive. They were not been terrible. But I did harbor this feeling that I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during those months. Thankfully, this feeling ended when I saw the political thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name,”STATE OF PLAY” was about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version.  I have seen the miniseries and it is pretty damn good, but I must admit that I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be just as impressive.  Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics.  This film never became critically acclaimed as the British miniseries (even if it deserved to be), but it was an excellent, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER”or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Several years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE”and ”HOLLYWOODLAND”. And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globeeditor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed. I have seen a few political films of slightly better quality.  But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a first-rate, entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.

“KNIGHT AND DAY” (2010) Review

“KNIGHT AND DAY” (2010) Review

Once more, Tom Cruise had put himself out on a limb by appearing in a movie, recently released last summer. The movie in question turned out to be a romantic comedy thriller called ”KNIGHT AND DAY”. Co-starring Cameron Diaz, the movie was directed by James Mangold. 

Surprisingly, seventy to eighty percent of ”KNIGHT AND DAY” was told from Diaz’s point-of-view. She portrayed an auto mechanic named June Havens who found herself swept into the adventures of an eccentric man claiming to be a former CIA agent named Roy Miller. Miller also claimed that he was trying to prevent a corrupt CIA colleague named Fitzgerald from finding a brilliant young inventor named Simon Feck and his new invention, a perpetual energy battery called the Zephyr, and selling both to a Spanish weapons dealer named Antonio. Unfortunately, his former director believes he is a rogue agent that has gone mentally off the grid.

I might as well be frank. ”KNIGHT AND DAY” did not strike me as an exceptional action film. The movie featured a series of minor scenes in which a drugged and semi-conscious June found herself being moved from one location to another by Miller. And since these scenes were shown from her point-of-view, I suspect this gave Mangold and screenwriter Patrick O’Neill the opportunity to move their characters around without any real detail. Personally, it seemed like a lazy way to progress the plot along. I was also confused over how Peter Sarsgaard’s character, Agent Fitzgerald, managed to arrange for other CIA agents to appear on the Wichita-Boston flight at the beginning of the movie as the entire crew and group of passengers. Nor did I understand why he bothered to keep June on that flight after Miller tried to ensure that she would miss it. Also, Mangold’s direction failed to infuse the movie with any special energy that could have made it memorable. Despite the somewhat eccentric plot, ”KNIGHT AND DAY” moved and felt like a typical action film.

But the movie also had its virtues. It featured some beautiful photography of Boston, Jamaica (which served as the Azores, off the coast of Portugal), Austria and Spain; thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The movie also featured one hell of a plane crash, supervised by Chris Brenczewski. O’Neill wrote a solid plot that I could easily understand – something that has been lacking in a good number of action films (comedy or otherwise) recently. ”KNIGHT AND DAY”also provided some first-rate action sequences. My favorites included Miller’s fight against his former CIA colleagues aboard the Wichita-Boston flight; the gunfight on one of Boston’s highways; and Miller’s fight against a young German assassin named Danny, aboard a train bound for Salzburg, Austria. Humor proved to be another one of the movie’s virtues. Not only did cast members such as Cruise, Diaz, Paul Dano and Marc Blucas provide some excellent comic performances, O’Neill’s script provided them with plenty of material to work with. At least two scenes struck me as particularly funny – Miller’s ”with me, you survive” speech; June’s encounter with Feck and Danny, the assassin, aboard the train; and her encounter with the arms dealer, Antonio. But my favorite scene turned out to be the encounter between Miller, June and her ex-boyfriend, Rodney inside a Boston diner. I really found that scene hilarious.

There were no bad performances in ”KNIGHT AND DAY”. But I must admit that not all of them struck me as impressive. Both Viola Davis and Jordi Mollà gave solid, yet humorless performances as the CIA Director and Antonio, the arms dealer. Peter Sarsgaard, who portrayed Agent Fitzgerald, seemed amusing at times. Otherwise, he came off as distant and slightly stiff. But the movie had its share of good performances. Dale Dye and Celia Weston provided plenty of laughs as Miller’s parents, who believed that their son was dead. Paul Dano proved that he also have a talent for comedy in his goofy and funny portrayal of Feck, the brilliant young scientist that created the Zephyr battery. But of the entire supporting cast, my favorite performance came from Marc Blucas, who portrayed June’s ex-boyfriend and a Boston fireman. Thanks to his two-season stint on television’s ”BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”, I have always been aware of the actor’s talent for off-beat humor. But Mangold’s direction and O’Neill’s script provided him with a role that truly exploited his comedic talents. Blucas portrayed Rodney not only as a compassionate and duty-bound man, but also a self-absorbed and shallow jerk. And he managed to achieve this balance with great subtlety and skill.

But what really made ”KNIGHT AND DAY” work for me were the two leads, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. They had worked together before in the 2001 movie, ”VANILLA SKY” and it was easy to see that they both had a very good screen chemistry. Once again, Cruise proved his talent for both comedy and action as the slightly eccentric Roy Miller, whose idea of keeping his new companion safe was too keep her in a drugged state, as he carted her around the eastern United States and Europe. The actor also effectively conveyed his character’s self-assured nature without allowing it to be tainted by any signs of cockiness. This would not have been the case with a younger Cruise. What I liked about Cameron Diaz’s portrayal of June Havens was that she did an excellent job of conveying her character’s progression throughout the movie. Her June started as a reserved woman just recovering from the end of a trying relationship, progressed to the confused and frightened innocent caught up in intrigue and betrayal; and finally developed into a more confident woman who was self-assured about her love for Miller and what she needed to do to keep him safe.

”KNIGHT AND DAY” was not the best movie I had seen last summer. It certainly did not knock my socks off. But thanks to James Mangold’s direction, a solid script by Patrick O’Neill and an excellent screen team in the form of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz made it an entertaining movie.  It is not a perfect film, but it is certainly better than I had originally assumed.