The Suicide Squad review

For F*** Magazine

Director: James Gunn
Cast : Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Sean Gunn
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 5 August 2021
Rating : M18

In 2016, Warner Bros. released the third entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Suicide Squad. While that film was a commercial success, it did not fare too well with critics and many fans. Five years later, we get a standalone sequel that reuses certain actors/characters from the first film, but otherwise has nothing to do with it, with the hope that second time’s the charm. 

A military coup has occurred on the island nation of Corto Maltese, off the coast of South America. Corto Maltese is home to the Jotunheim research facility, which houses something known only as “Project Starfish”. Fearing that the military regime could unleash Project Starfish against Americans, intelligence agency director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles Task Force X to infiltrate Corto Maltese. Led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the squad comprises Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport/Robert Du Bois (Idris Elba), Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), Nanaue/King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) and Abner Krill/Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). Their mission is to track down Gaius Grieves/The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), an evil geneticist who oversees Project Starfish. With their idiosyncratic personalities and unorthodox abilities, the team must work together and stay on mission, lest Waller detonate the bomb implanted in each of their necks.

At its best, The Suicide Squad captures the tone of its source material, bringing it to big screen life. Writer-director James Gunn understands the assignment perfectly, crafting something chaotic, violent, funny, entertaining, and even a little heart-warming. Drawing inspiration from 80s military action films like Predator and Commando, The Suicide Squad’s central mission is well defined, which is more than can be said of its predecessor’s plot. The film is cast well, and the characters are all used in interesting ways. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more internally consistent and better managed than the DCEU, it is highly unlikely that a big-budget R-rated movie would be released as part of that franchise – at least until they figure out how to integrate Deadpool into the MCU.

All the chaos and anarchy on display can sometimes feel like eating too much candy. The movie also sometimes comes off as too mean-spirited, trading in shock humour that can fall ever so slightly on the wrong side of bad taste. There’s a sequence in which our heroes unwittingly murder a village of innocent people, and Gunn seems to have it out for birds, with more than one sequence involving violence on birds. While the film handles its large cast better than a lot of other ensemble comic book movies do, there still are times when it feels spread a bit too thin. 

The circumstances surrounding Gunn’s hiring are slightly complicated, but it all worked out for him in the end. Riding high on the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn was fired from the third after old distasteful jokes of his were unearthed. The competition then scooped him up, offering Gunn any project he wanted. It only makes sense, since the first Suicide Squad movie was obviously a reaction to the success of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Then, Gunn was re-hired by Marvel, meaning he would make both The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Gunn comes from the Troma world, meaning his stock in trade is low-budget, gory horror-comedy. Like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him, Gunn has gone from schlock to blockbusters, but has never really forgotten his roots – Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman makes a cameo in this movie, as he has in several of Gunn’s earlier films. Gunn displays an affection for and understanding of the source material, and works well with his talent, bringing wonderful performances out of the cast.

The premise of the Suicide Squad as re-imagined by comics writer John Ostrander (who makes a cameo in this movie) is that each line-up is comprised of expendable, C-list-or-lower villains. Gunn embraces this, claiming that Polka Dot Man’s inclusion in the film is the result of him Googling “who is the dumbest super villain of all time?”

Robbie continues to be an amazing Harley Quinn, with this movie showcasing her at her most violent. Elba cuts a heroic figure and is an undeniable presence onscreen. He was initially cast to replace Will Smith as Deadshot, but the character was rewritten into Bloodsport should Smith eventually choose to return. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was arguably the best casting in the first movie, and she remains a force to be reckoned with here, even if most of her scenes are confined to a control room.

Cena portrays both excellent comic timing and brutish physicality as Peacemaker, a character who has decided that the path to peace is to kill everyone, because then there will be nobody to wage war. King Shark is imagined as loveable but intimidating, with Stallone’s voice fitting this design perfectly. Melchior is, unexpectedly, the heart of the film, with Ratcatcher II emerging as the most sympathetic and loveable character. David Dastmalchian, who has portrayed many a creepy character onscreen, is wonderfully unhinged as Polka Dot Man. It’s an A+ lineup of C-list-or-lower characters.

Summary: An ideal marriage of filmmaker and source material, The Suicide Squad is the messy, gory fun that fans have always wanted. This is a great example of what happens when a studio just lets a filmmaker do what they do best. James Gunn takes what he learned making the Guardians of the Galaxy films and ramps up the chaos, violence and anarchy. There are times when The Suicide Squad leaves a bit of a sour taste in one’s mouth, but for the most part, it makes fantastic use of its premise and characters. 

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Birds of Prey review

For F*** Magazine

BIRDS OF PREY

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast : Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Genre: Action/Crime/Comics
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 6 February 2020
Rating : NC16

The DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs. While the franchise has its ardent supporters, moviegoers at large have decided that in the cinematic battle between the two big boys in comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has emerged victorious. DC’s not going to take that lying down, and as the DCEU heads towards each of the movies being more of their own thing instead of having the close interconnectivity that was originally planned, there’s the opportunity for some exciting alchemy. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one such opportunity.

Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has struck out on her own and left the Joker – for good, as she tells herself. On a mission of reinvention, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of mob boss and nightclub proprietor Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is after Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who has stolen something priceless from him. Also caught in the mix are vengeful mafia daughter Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer-turned Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who wants to bring Sionis to justice. These colourful characters collide on the battleground that is Gotham City as Harley brings her signature blend of chaos to the proceedings.

Birds of Prey knows and embraces what it is. This is a very smart adaptation –  screenwriter Christina Hodson, working closely with Robbie (who also produced the film), changes a lot from the comics but also combines the pieces in a way that works. The character of Harley Quinn is not a member of the Birds of Prey, and interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her a member of the team – she’s narrating their origin story. Harley is an unreliable narrator, which gives the film license to mess around with the structure, rewinding and fast-forwarding as Harley gives telling the story her best shot. Director Cathy Yan has style to spare, and unlike several earlier DCEU movies, this isn’t one that feels like it has been obviously been meddled with by studio executives. There will inevitably be comparisons to Deadpool, but perhaps Birds of Prey owes a bit more of the oft-overlooked Tank Girl.

Birds of Prey is messy, but it’s messy in a way that feels natural. Robbie has only played Harley Quinn once before, yet displays such ownership of the character, understanding and embodying her in a way that demonstrates her investment in the character and the source material. The fear that many DC Comics fans had going in was that Robbie had turned a Birds of Prey movie into a Harley Quinn movie – this movie feels like a Harley Quinn movie that has collided with a Birds of Prey movie in a “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!”/”You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” way.

The movie’s messiness may work for some more than it does for others. The device of Harley as unreliable narrator means that what should be a straightforward narrative is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. The movie must cover multiple back-stories and does so efficiently, but it can still sometimes feel like it’s spreading itself too thin, the way other comic book hero team-up movies sometimes do.

Some deviations from the source material can be difficult to be come to terms with – Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle is often instrumental in forming the Birds of Prey but is entirely absent here. Harley has just one pet hyena because it was too expensive to animate two – not a big deal. The biggest change from the comics is the character of Cassandra Cain, and this doesn’t quite work. The character bears almost no similarities to her namesake from the comics, who was a mute, deadly daughter of assassins who eventually became Batgirl. This iteration of Cassandra has more in common with Catwoman supporting character Holly Robinson. None of this is Ella Jay Basco’s fault – she plays the mouthy kid with enough attitude and is often entertaining in the role – but it is frustrating that there technically is a Batgirl in a Birds of Prey movie, just not the right one.

Margot Robbie is a great Harley. This movie further explores the characters flaws and her desire to be a part of something bigger. That something might not necessarily be the Birds of Prey, but it is fun to watch her pop in and interact with the team just as it is forming.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Huntress – the crossbow-fu is dazzling stuff and she manages to be both formidable and endearing. After the brutal murder of her family at the hands of a rival mob, Helena trained to be an assassin and as such has no social skills to speak of. Winstead plays both the icy killer and the awkward member of the friend group equally well.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a riveting character – she’s trying to get out from under the thumb of Roman Sionis and is suppressing a power that she doesn’t quite know how to use. In the comics, Black Canary is an expert martial artist who favours kicking, and there’s quite a lot of that here.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is meant to be a cliché, a hard-drinking, one-liner-dispensing caricature of a tough cop from an 80s movie, which she pulls off well.

Ewan McGregor is having the time of his life. He’s over-the-top and goofy but also suitably intimidating and unhinged. Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Sionis’ creepy, sycophantic lackey and they both play off each other well. Each time McGregor enters a scene, there’s the sense that he will not leave until he has stolen the show.

The film boasts some of the best action sequences of any DCEU film yet. The integration of gymnastics into Harley’s fights is done exceedingly well. The fights are stylised but also feel tactile – prepare to wince as many, many bones get broken with a loud crunch. There’s a motorbike-roller skates-car chase that is beautifully executed, and as mentioned above, all the crossbow stuff is impressive. Stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Chad Stahelski of 87Eleven Action Design craft many enjoyable action sequences that while not as slick as what might be seen in a John Wick movie, do fit the overall feel of the film.

Summary: Birds of Prey is enjoyably grimy, a comic book movie that is breezily entertaining, packed with violent action and finished off with a generous sprinkle of zaniness. It’s a lot more cohesive than many previous DCEU outings and left this reviewer wanting to see more of these characters. Now can we please get that Gotham City Sirens movie already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Bombshell review

For F*** Magazine

BOMBSHELL

Director: Jay Roach
Cast : Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Malcolm McDowell
Genre: Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 30 January 2020
Rating : NC16

Millions of Americans turn to Fox News for political commentary and opinion every day, and the channel is the preferred media mouthpiece of the current occupant of the White House. This film tells the story of how a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment perpetrated by CEO Roger Ailes and other high-ranking members within the organisation was brought to light.

It is 2015 and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), a popular anchor on Fox News, earns the ire of Donald Trump, Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential election. After asking Trump a question about his history of alleged mistreatment of women at a televised debate, Kelly is targeted by Trump and receives a barrage of attacks for challenging him. In the meantime, Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is taken off the popular morning show and given her own show in a bad timeslot. Carlson constantly faces sexism and has repeated advances made on her by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). After meeting with lawyers, Carlson plans to sue Ailes for harassment.

Ailes’ latest victim is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a newcomer with dreams of being a Fox anchor. Kayla befriends Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), a Fox staffer with something to hide. Soon, Carlson’s lawsuit causes tension within Fox News, with pressure mounting for the anchors to defend Ailes – something Kelly refuses to do. A rift forms between Ailes and media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), the owner of Fox News, as many more credible accusations against Ailes and other men at Fox News surface.

Bombshell has a largely excellent cast giving the material their all. Charlize Theron has netted an Oscar nomination for her turn as Megyn Kelly – subtle special effects makeup alters her features to increase the resemblance, but the truly uncanny element of her performance is the voice she affects. While it sometimes sounds like she’s struggling to sustain it, it works.

Robbie is eminently sympathetic, playing some emotional moments such that they’re especially heart-rending.

Encased in layers of prosthetic makeup to play the slovenly Ailes, John Lithgow is especially watchable playing blustery characters, and Roger Ailes is nothing if not blustery, always a second away from yelling – and worse – at his employees.

Bombshell is often energetic and is very good at conveying the crushing atmosphere of fear at Fox News that caused many of Ailes’ victims to hesitate in speaking out. The film is not especially accessible to those that do not have prior knowledge of Fox News and its key personnel, but it does an adequate job of portraying the tension between Ailes and the Murdochs, as well as highlighting how sexism manifested itself on the Fox air.

Unfortunately, it feels like Jay Roach is not the best director for this. Yes, Roach has directed the Sarah Palin-centric film Game Change, but he is best known for his comedies, including the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. Bombshell’s overall jokey tone is at odds with the graveness of the subject matter, meaning the film’s tonal shifts are often jarring. Scribe Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for co-writing The Big Short, brings a lot of that film’s glibness to this project. There are many stylistic choices which call attention to themselves, including characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. This reminds audiences of the artifice of the film, and yet, there is a heavy use of handheld documentary-style camera moves, including suddenly zooming in on a character’s face as they react to something – this is perhaps more reminiscent of The Office than of most documentaries.

Not unlike 2018’s Vice, Bombshell feels like a movie that constantly gets in its own way because it is determined to present the story in a fast-paced, eye-catching manner. The movie sometimes sabotages the committed performances its actors give in the name of excitement. In trying to cover as much ground as possible, Bombshell goes for breadth over depth, with title cards popping up to introduce each new player as efficiently as possible. It does all this while keeping Megyn Kelly front and centre as the main heroine of the piece, such that it feels like the story was manipulated to give her prominence over Carlson and others. Interestingly, Kelly was wholly absent from The Loudest Voice, the 2019 TV series starring Russell Crowe as Ailes and covering much of the same ground. Kelly herself said meteorologist Janice Dean should have been featured in the film, as she became the confidant for many fellow victims of Ailes.

Many other noted Fox News personalities briefly show up in the film, including Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon), Ainsley Earhardt (Alice Eve), Abby Huntsman (Nikki Reed), Chris Wallace (Marc Evan Jackson), Sean Hannity (Spencer Garrett), Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana), Jeanine Pirro (Alana Ubach) and Greta van Susteren (Anne Ramsay). The overall comedic tone means that some of these performances feel straight out of Saturday Night Live. Yes, this being a film about a media outlet, many of its characters are bound to be recognisable public figures, but Bombshell becomes more of a game of “how much does this actor look like their real-life counterpart?” than it needs to be.

The biggest invention in the film is Robbie’s character Pospisil. She is a composite character meant to represent the younger would-be on air talent who were subject to Ailes’ advances. Jess Carr, played by actual SNL star Kate McKinnon, is also fictional. The subplot about the unexpected bond formed between the two women rings especially false. Practically every movie based on a true story features composite characters, but because the scandal at Fox played out in the public eye, audiences can immediately tell that there wasn’t really a “Kayla Pospisil”.

Summary: Bombshell tells a compelling, important story in an off-putting jokey manner, feeling too smug and self-satisfied to properly essay its message about women fighting back against a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. Bombshell is carried by great performances, especially from Theron, Robbie and Lithgow, but is nowhere near as effectively insightful and damning as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

I, Tonya movie review

For inSing

I, TONYA

Director : Craig Gillespie
Cast : Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace
Genre : Biography, Drama, Sports
Run Time : 1h 19m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)

Every awards season, we get at least a few inspirational sports biopics about resilient athletes who overcome insurmountable odds, becoming heroes to people everywhere.

I, Tonya is not that movie.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the first U.S. female figure skater to pull off the extremely tricky triple axel move. If you were around during the 90s, you might have a vague recollection of the rivalry between Tonya and fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). This culminated in Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) planning an attack against Nancy. After a hired hand breaks Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, it isn’t long before suspicion falls on Tonya and Jeff.

The film follows the lead-up to and aftermath of this incident. Tonya’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) mercilessly pushes her daughter, and Tonya’s life revolves around abusive relationships. Facing numerous setbacks and eventually cast as a villain by the media, Tonya pursues her dream of being the #1 figure skater in the world.

I, Tonya is an acerbic subversion of your bog-standard awards bait sports biopic. It’s sometimes unpleasant, and intentionally so. Director Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the more traditional sports movie Million Dollar Arm, takes a black comedy approach to Tonya Harding’s life story. He directs from a screenplay by Steven Rogers – this is easily the Love the Coopers screenwriter’s edgiest work.

Tonally, I, Tonya is tricky. It wants the audience to laugh at the ‘white trash’ characters that populate the story, while also empathising with them. It wants to be cynical and snarky, yet sincere. There are moments when the cracks begin to show, but given the ambitiousness of this juggling of moods, I, Tonya works far better than it might have in different hands.

The film is framed with interview sequences in which the characters, a gallery of unreliable narrators, speak directly to camera. Outside these interview scenes, we also get fourth wall breaks. Everything is caustic, everyone is varying degrees of broken, and yet, it’s funny. The ice skating sequences are also absolutely mesmerising and thrilling, pinpricks of gracefulness in the blackness of awful people being awful.

Robbie, who is also the co-producer through her Lucky Chap Productions label, holds this all together. She throws every ounce of herself into a performance that is impossible to look away from and which has deservedly netted her an Oscar nomination. Piercing through the public perception of Tonya, Robbie paints the portrait of someone who has been knocked about her whole life, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike behaviour and overall demeanour a result of that. Robbie is flashy, sincere, wild and showcases impressive physicality, under the tutelage of coach Sarah Kawahara. This is the ‘sink-your-teeth-into-it’ role actors live for, and Robbie makes quite the meal of it.

Even with that highly unflattering moustache, Stan is still quite loveable. The Jeff character isn’t meant to be – he’s a dope, and he’s abusive, but is he malicious? Is he even smart enough to be capable of malice? The relationship between Tonya and Jeff rivals that of Harley Quinn and the Joker in the ‘toxic and unhealthy’ stakes. The film’s depiction of domestic abuse is harrowing, but doesn’t quite fit in with the devil-may-care glibness established earlier.

Janney handily steals the show as the abrasive, cruel, yet oddly endearing LaVona. Janney undergoes a complete transformation, and while we’ve seen the cigarette-smoking stage mom archetype before, she unearths several layers to the character. LaVona’s abusiveness towards Tonya contributes to Tonya’s acceptance of Jeff’s abuse after they are married. Janney is hotly tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The film also works to dispel the myth that parents who push their children past their breaking point in the pursuit of excellence are helping their children, and that’s what their children need. LaVona thinks that Tonya performs best when she is enraged, so she engineers situations to throw her child off balance – it’s psychological abuse.

As Tonya’s long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson is the sole source of purity, comfort and level-headedness in this sea of scuzziness. Her presence offers a respite from the overwhelming unpleasantness of everything else.

Paul Walter Hauser has a good deal of fun with the role of Shawn, the schlubby friend with delusions of grandeur who ‘masterminds’ a criminal plot with consequences far beyond what Jeff or Tonya could have imagined. This section of the movie plays a bit like a Coen Brothers caper, with bumbling characters who are not very good at being up to no good.

I, Tonya is challenging in that it leaves the audience laughing but uncomfortable as they’re doing so. The film is sympathetic to its title character, but also leans into the tabloid perception of her as it attempts to dig beyond that surface. Mostly, I, Tonya is a terrific showcase for Margot Robbie’s increasingly stunning talents as a leading lady.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

For inSing

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN 

Director : Simon Curtis
Cast : Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been beloved by children all around the world for decades, spawning numerous animated TV shows and films. This historical drama peels back the curtain on the surprisingly tragic true story behind the creation of Pooh and his friends who live in Hundred-Acre Wood.

It is just after World War I, and playwright Alan Alexander ‘A. A.’ Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who fought at the Battle of the Somme, is haunted by memories of the war. Seeking some peace and quiet, Alan and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move from London to a countryside home in East Sussex. Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther at different ages), who is nicknamed “Billy Moon” by his parents. The couple hires a live-in nanny named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to look after Christopher, and the boy soon grows attached to her.

Alan is inspired by seeing Christopher play with his stuffed toys in the woods, including teddy bear which he first names ‘Edward’ and later ‘Winnie’. This serves as the basis for children’s stories that soon become immensely popular. With the whole world clamouring to know the ‘real’ Christopher Robin, the young boy becomes subject to fame that he struggles to handle. What began as a creative expression of a father’s love for his son grows into a worldwide phenomenon, changing the Milne family’s lives forever.

Goodbye Christopher Robin might well ruin Winnie-the-Pooh for many viewers, but in the process, the film has interesting things to say about childhood, fame and creative expression. Director Simon Curtis, who also helmed the fact-based My Week with Marilyn and The Woman in Gold, has made a respectable period piece. However, like many awards season period pieces, Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes comes off as too mannered and not sufficiently authentic. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film resorts to shameless emotional manipulation at times, but also offers fascinating, heart-rending insight into the relationship dynamics within the Milne family.

The film runs up against the challenge of striking a tonal balance. The events in the film span from just after the First World War to the midst of the Second. Alan is reeling from the trauma of fighting as a soldier in the First World War, but eventually writes delightful, whimsical stories. Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant attempt at showing the range of moods any one person can experience, depicting a journey from sorrow, to joy, back to sorrow again. There’s profundity here, but Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes feels like it’s skimming the surface.

Gleeson is an actor who’s mostly flown under the radar, but has consistently turned in solid work. In Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson fleshes out the layers to the character of A. A. Milne. Gleeson sells both the frustration that creative types experience when they’re stuck in a rut, and the joy that they feel when inspiration presents itself. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Alan and his son, a relationship that is initially enriched but eventually complicated by the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Young actor Tilston is plenty adorable, and lights up the screen with his natural joy and the right degree of precociousness, such that the performance never registers as cloying or obnoxious. Alex Lawther plays Christopher Robin at age 18; he’s best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Lawther’s performance as a young man trying to regain his identity, having shared his childhood with the world, is deeply affecting.

Kelly Macdonald’s turn as Olive, the nanny whom Christopher affectionally called “Nou”, brims with genuine warmth. Olive is depicted as being more of a maternal figure to Christopher than his actual mother Daphne who, as portrayed here by Margot Robbie, seems like an awful person. There’s a tug-of-war between the three parental figures in Christopher’s life, with a young boy for whom it’s all too much to process at the centre.

Goodbye Christopher Robin does not convey the passage of time as well as it should – the makeup used to age up Gleeson and Robbie is a little too subtle – so it doesn’t feel like as much time elapses in the story as it did in real life.

Despite being uneven, coming off as a little too packaged and artificial at times and being less than subtle in going for the tear ducts, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a largely moving story. It explores worthwhile themes and its revelatory nature will shock audiences who love Winnie-the-Pooh but did not know the details behind how the stories came to be.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Suicide Squad

For F*** Magazine

SUICIDE SQUAD

Director : David Ayer
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adam Beach, Ben Affleck
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 3 mins
Opens : 4 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Suicide Squad posterThe heroes of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have been pretty sullen thus far, so here we get to know if bad guys really have more fun (spoiler: they do). Government official Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles ‘Task Force X’, a covert team of supervillains coerced into doing her dirty work. On the roster are hitman Deadshot/Floyd Lawton (Smith), the unhinged ex-psychiatrist Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Robbie), cannibalistic beast Killer Croc/Waylon Jones (Akinnouye-Agbaje), Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang/Digger Harkness (Courtney), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo/Chato Santana (Hernandez), assassin Slipknot/Christopher Weiss (Beach) and the possessed archaeologist Enchantress/June Moone (Delevingne). Wrangling the team are elite operative Rick Flag (Kinnaman) and swordswoman Katana/Tatsu Yamashiro (Fukuhara). When a powerful mystical entity throws Midway City into chaos, Task Force X are sent in to mitigate the situation. Between the in-fighting, Waller’s machinations and the intervention of the Joker (Leto), the object of Harley’s affections, it will be anything but smooth sailing.

Suicide Squad group shot 1

This year’s Batman v Superman took quite the beating from critics and while many conceded that the extended Ultimate Edition was a massive improvement, the damage was done. The DCEU has a great deal of catching up to do, seeing as how Marvel continues to rule the roost at the cinemas. A Suicide Squad movie is a step in the right direction: it’s smaller than your typical superhero blockbuster so it won’t feel bloated, DC has a rich menagerie of villains to play with, and it won’t take itself too seriously. Writer-director David Ayer is an excellent get: he has a proven track record of grimy, street-level flicks carried by characters who wouldn’t normally be considered likeable. This is messy fun, akin to splashing about in mud. It’s not always pleasant, nor is it meant to be, but it’s enjoyable in its own way.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie and Jared Leto

There’s plenty of dark comedy to be mined from the inherent dysfunction of the titular team, and while some of the jokes feel crowbarred in, the tone is generally appropriate for the material. The dialogue occasionally sounds like it’s trying too hard to sound tough, but the interplay within the team is engaging. At 123 minutes, it’s a smidgen too long, with multiple flashbacks required to fill the audience in on the backstories of our many characters. However, it scuttles along at a satisfactory pace and the action flies thick and fast. It’s far from the most aesthetically pleasing comic book film and it’s easy to see why several design choices (most having to do with Joker and Harley) have been decried by fans. However, there are moments that are visually exciting, and the lack of polish belies a healthy amount of visceral thrills.

Suicide Squad Will Smith and Joel Kinnaman

Ayer does a decent job of juggling quite a number of characters, by delineating which ones are worthy of exploration, and which ones just serve to fill a slot on the attendance sheet. The film retains the key component of Deadshot’s attachment to his daughter, and casting Will Smith means no matter how many times the character proclaims he’s a “bad guy”, we’ll have at a least a little sympathy for him. The emotional moments don’t work as well as they should, but Deadshot is appropriately quippy and cocky, with Smith’s charisma serving as a rallying point for the rest of the film. Does his star power pull one out of it? It turns out, not as much as you’d expect.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie

Harley Quinn is a fan-favourite for many reasons, and when the character was reinvented during DC’s New 52 comics reboot, writer Adam Glass even received death threats. As such, Robbie’s performance won’t fit the ideal Harley in everyone’s heads, but this reviewer feels she displays a good understanding of the character, sprightly physicality and is immense fun to watch. Harley’s twisted joie de vivre is faithful to the source material, even if the outfit she sports for the bulk of the movie isn’t.

Suicide Squad Jared Leto

The Joker is wisely not overused. Leto’s on-set antics, including mailing a severed pig’s head to co-star Davis, raised a lot of eyebrows. He makes for a fine Joker who feels like he fits right into this particular cinematic universe, and it might sound silly, but this reviewer was thrilled to hear Harley call the Joker “Puddin’” and “Mistah J” on the big screen. It’s not as virtuosic a performance as the late Heath Ledger’s, but it fits the requirements of the story. Similarly, the way Batman is used in the narrative is just right – it’s not a sizeable part, but he does make an impact and provides connective tissue to the rest of the DCEU.

Suicide Squad Viola Davis

A key factor in making the audience buy the outlandish premise is by putting someone scary enough in charge, and Davis’ authoritative presence anchors Suicide Squad. Her Amanda Waller is nigh perfect, no-nonsense and manipulative without being one-note, and Davis’ gravitas is a force to be reckoned with. Kinnaman is probably a better fit for the straight arrow soldier than the originally-cast Tom Hardy would’ve been.

Suicide Squad Jai Courtney and Karen Fukuhara

Courtney is a hoot here – he may have had little success as a cookie cutter action hero, but as the crass Aussie thug, he’s right on the money. Hernandez provides a surprising amount of heart as the repentant former gangster, while Akinnuoye-Agbaje competently fills the role of burly big guy (Croc’s head just seems too big for his body). Alas, Delevingne isn’t convincing as an archaeologist or as an ancient witch. The central antagonist, whose identity we shan’t spoil, serves as a formidable physical and psychological threat to the Squad while not requiring too much characterisation, so we can focus on the team members themselves. It’s also convenient that the villain’s minions are faceless monsters, so they can get shot at and hacked apart in graphic fashion without breaking the PG-13 limit.

Suicide Squad group shot 2

Suicide Squad has its flaws, but the film scores a victory in not trying to ape the Marvel Studios formula. Like its central characters, it’s unpolished and rough around the edges. It’s spirited and entertaining without sacrificing too much of the graveness that has become DC’s calling card at the movies. The story is relatively easy to follow even for a neophyte, but fans will be rewarded with a couple of cool cameos and plenty of Easter Eggs, including a respectful nod to writer John Ostrander, who co-created the Suicide Squad team in the comics. Stick around for a mid-credits scene after the main-on-end titles.

Summary: It won’t please everyone, but Suicide Squad is an ideal marriage of director and comic book property. Jump on in and get messy.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Legend of Tarzan

For F*** Magazine

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

Director : David Yates
Cast : Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Simon Russell Beale, Jim Broadbent
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 hr 49 mins
Opens : 30 June 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

 

          Superheroes may reign at the multiplex, but the Lord of the Apes is hoping to reclaim the crown. We find John Clayton III a.k.a. Tarzan (Skarsgård) living a life of aristocracy in London, alongside his American wife Jane Porter (Robbie). It has been years since Tarzan has left the jungle and now, King Leopold II of Belgium has invited him to return to the Congo Free State. Tarzan is initially reluctant to travel back to Africa, but is convinced by George Washington Williams (Jackson), an American diplomat who plans to investigate Leopold’s alleged use of slaves to build a railway through the Congo. Tarzan is unaware that he is being lured back to the jungle by the ruthless and avaricious Belgian Captain Léon Rom (Waltz), who has offered to deliver Tarzan to the vengeful Chief Mbonga (Hounsou) in exchange for diamonds. As Tarzan reunites with the various wild animals he grew up amongst, the people of the Congo must fight for their liberty.


            Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is an enduring figure in popular culture, but is now most often viewed as kitschy and campy. Clad in a loin cloth, yelling as he swings through the trees – he’s not exactly the action hero modern-day moviegoers have become accustomed to. Director David Yates, best known for helming the final four instalments in the Harry Potter film series, endeavours for viewers to take Tarzan seriously again. This take on the story is commendable in that it wants to be about something, directly addressing the colonialist politics and the unethical means by which various European nations went about their conquest of Africa. It’s pretty heady stuff and the film’s approach errs on the simplistic side, but there’s enough action to ensure the film doesn’t get bogged down in its sombre themes.

            Yates, working from a screenplay by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, approaches this as a work of historical fiction. The primary antagonist, Léon Rom, is an actual historical figure, who was known for keeping severed heads in his flowerbed. In addition, George Washington Williams as depicted in the film is a fictionalisation of a real-life Civil War veteran, preacher, politician, lawyer, journalist and historian. The 1890 setting is established with enough detail, but one does occasionally get the sense that this is an adventure flick putting on stuffy period drama airs.

            Skarsgård beat out the likes of Henry Cavill, Tom Hardy, Charlie Hunnam and swimmer Michael Phelps, who was toying with using this film to launch an acting career, for the title role. We first see Tarzan as John Clayton III, trying to fit in among the upper crust, and Skarsgård ably conveys that this is a man who is not in his element. While Tarzan is traditionally viewed as a feral man, this version portrays him as a person of both instinct and intellect, having mastered multiple languages and well-versed in various cultures. He wants to be seen as more than a mere oddity. Naturally, we get to see him doff his shirt, and any doubts that he wouldn’t be able to pull off the necessary muscled physique are quickly assuaged. For all his efforts, Skarsgård is still encumbered by a certain stiffness, and this reviewer would like to have seen a more passionate, unbridled Tarzan.

            Yates wanted Jessica Chastain to portray Jane and the studio had their eyes on Emma Stone, but it’s Robbie who portrays Tarzan’s lady love. Robbie possesses an irrepressible radiance and imbues Jane with a charming vigour. The film is able to strike a balance between putting Jane in peril, as she is expected to be so Tarzan can rescue her, while also making her a capable character in her own right. She holds her own opposite Waltz, but the scene in which Jane grits her teeth to sit down for dinner with Rom is a pale imitation of the similar scene between Belloq and Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

            There’s no denying Waltz is a talented actor, but by now, audiences have begun to tire of seeing him typecast as the villain, and he does nothing different as Rom. The character is the embodiment of imperialist greed, striding through the jungle with fearsome troops behind him, taking what he wants at will. There’s no nuance here, and Waltz often seems extremely close to twirling his moustache. Hounsou strikes an imposing presence as the tribal leader who has a long-standing vendetta with Tarzan, but gets too little screen time for their conflict to take hold. Jackson is entertaining as Williams and the character gets a moment to reflect on his own history and explain his motivations. However, his performance can’t help but come off as anachronistic, and Williams is very much a wise-cracking buddy cop sidekick, which can pull one out of it at times.

            There is a great deal of visual effects work and a multitude of computer-generated animals required to populate the Congo. Unfortunately, some of these beasts look sillier than others, and several sequences, particularly a railroad ambush and an ostrich stampede, lack polish. Tarzan calls on his animal friends for assistance during the climax, and for a film purported to be a more serious telling of the Tarzan tale, it is a little goofy.

            The world was never aching for another Tarzan movie, but this one justifies its existence by incorporating historical elements and setting out to make a statement about man’s relationship with nature. This is complemented by a blend of National Geographic-style panoramic vistas and moderately exciting action beats. While it lacks the heart of the animated version the target teen audience might be most familiar with, it’s a fine addition to the Tarzan movie canon, and definitely ranks far above the risible 2014 animated take.

Summary: Historical elements are cleverly weaved into the familiar Tarzan tale and this is not as much of a re-tread as one might expect, but there’s still a certain vitality missing from this version.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Focus

For F*** Magazine

FOCUS

Director : Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Adrian Martinez
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 26 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Scene of Intimacy and Coarse Language)
In Batman Begins, Henri Ducard had this piece of advice for Bruce Wayne – “always mind your surroundings”. In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, someone whose stock in trade is preying on those who don’t mind their surroundings. A seasoned, talented conman, Nicky is skilled in the art of persuasion and deception. He’s prepared for everything – everything except Jess Barrett (Robbie), an attractive young woman eager to learn the tricks of the trade and become a grifter herself. Nicky has never let down his guard and let his feelings get the better of him, but Jess gets closer than anyone else does. While Nicky is in the employ of billionaire racing team owner Garriga (Santoro), Jess’ presence threatens to throw him off his finely-honed game.

            Escapism is a large part of what makes going to the movies appealing and there’s an undeniable allure to movies that offer a peek into worlds only the privileged few have access to. Focus very effectively seduces the audience, beckoning them into a dizzying, dazzling world of lies and shiny objects. There are certain dangers associated with the subgenre of conman movies – the audience should feel like they’ve been taken on a ride, but not for a ride, the difference almost imperceptible. Nobody likes the feeling of being invested in a film for two hours only to feel played out by the big reveal. Writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage to quite masterfully negotiate that, having a firm grasp on the film’s tone throughout. It’s funny and playfully sexy, but there are stakes and the thrills click right into the proceedings where they could have easily felt out of place.

            The other danger of conman movies is that they can often come off as smug, as if the filmmakers are taking particular delight in feeling smarter than the audience. There is a little bit of that in Focus, to be sure, but that’s definitely better than if it were an altogether dumb affair. Real-life sleight-of-hand artist and “deception specialist” Apollo Robbins serves as the consultant on the film, choreographing the elaborate pickpocketing sequences which are very exciting to watch. While most of the jokes do work, there are a few too many at the expense of overweight comic relief sidekick Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez. The character also supplies more crass sexual innuendo than is strictly necessary.

            Remember how Will Smith tried to play against type as a stern, emotionless father in After Earth, to disastrous results? Focus is far more in his wheelhouse and absolutely plays to his strength as an actor. Three parts charming, one part goofy, it’s very easy to buy Smith as the shark with a heart of gold. He’s also the kind of guy who could go out with a woman 22 years his junior and it really isn’t that creepy because he’s that likeable. Margot Robbie, who impressed in The Wolf of Wall Street, is excellent here as well. Jess is simultaneously an ingénue and a femme fatale, Robbie nailing both aspects of the character. We can’t wait to see them together onscreen in next year’s Suicide Squad. At one point, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart were attached to star – I think we can all agree that would have had, uh, markedly different results. The devilishly handsome Rodrigo Santoro makes for a sufficiently formidable romantic rival to Smith. B.D. Wong threatens to steal the show in his one scene as an overly-excited high roller.  

            Ficarra and Requa’s previous film was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, which is considered one of the better examples of the genre in recent memory. With Focus, they have crafted what is almost the ideal date movie. Romantic comedies that crowbar in elements intended to appeal to men have often fallen flat on their faces – This Means War or Killers, anyone? Focus does more than serve up a shirtless Will Smith and Margot Robbie in a bikini, it attains an admirable balance of sexiness, laughs and intelligence and features a central romantic pairing that is unique and happens to really work.

Summary: Focus is sharp, slick and sexy, gliding along on the chemistry of its leads.
RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong