Suicide Squad Gets Violent, Virtuous in Zany 'Hell to Pay'

Directed by: Sam Liu; Runtime: 86 minutes
Grade: B-

Despite the rising enthusiasm toward both the group's first standalone movie and the appearance of fan-favorite Harley Quinn on the big screen, the Suicide Squad hasn't had an easy time of it over the past couple of years, certainly not enjoying the spike in popularity DC expected out of ‘em. The relative success of the animated film Batman: Assault on Arkham seemed to bode well for a live-action take on Task Force X, the government group that tosses low-ball, incarcerated villains from the DC universe into dangerous missions, so that they can shave off a few years from their sentence. After the tepid reception to David Ayer's clunky and awkwardly-toned Suicide Squad, however, interest has settled back down, leaving any future takes on the group with an uphill battle against the impressions left by that film. The chaotic and gleefully violent new entry into the DCAU, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, grasps both what the first animated film did right and where the live-action film faltered, relying on the wackiness of superpowers as a vehicle for suspense that swerves the squad back on the road to success.

Those expecting a credible, grounded story may have come to the wrong place, though, as Hell to Pay relies on a very specific plot device to make the story work: a literal "Get Out of Hell Free" card. That's right, the now svelte Amanda Waller (Vanessa Williams) once again gathers together an … uh, eclectic crew of assassins, henchmen, and superpower-wielding baddies to hunt down a piece of paper that guarantees redemption in the afterlife. Predictably, the near-faultless marksman known as Deadshot (Christian Slater) takes up the mantle of leader as he oversees a group of familiar and not-so-familiar rogues on a hunt for the item; Harley Quinn (Tara Strong), Boomerang (Liam McIntyre), and Killer Frost (Kristin Bauer van Straten) return for this mission, while Bronze Tiger (Billy Brown) and Copperhead (Gideon Emery) add some new blood to the mix. Personalities and motivations clash as they discover who else is in search for the "Get Out of Hell Free" card, shifting from the current owner of the card -- a pro "dancer" named Steel Maxum -- to villains pursuing it who are both immortal and exist in alternate realities.

While Assault on Arkham transpired within the brilliantly established universe of the Batman: Arkham videogames, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay doesn't latch onto enough distinguishing traits from its precursor to make it a "sequel", though it could serve as one if you squint hard enough. Instead. Director Sam Liu and his creative team have tailored the characters and atmosphere in such a way that it exists neither within the game universe nor that of DC's live-action realm, borrowing bits-‘n-pieces from both to make it an amalgamation that can now freely coexist with the DCAU proper. That means Harley Quinn sports the blonde pigtails with pastel-colored highlights and eyeshadow instead of her more jesterly look from The Animated Series or the early-2010s Suicide Squad comics, while the entire cast gets new voice actors: Tara Strong returns to the role of Harley Quinn (whom she played in the games), while Christian Slater's distinctively raspy voice takes over for Neal McDonough as Deadshot. Hell to Pay aims for Task Force X to establish its own distinctive yet familiar presence in the DCAU, and for the most part, it hits that mark without any serious issues.

They're hunting for this "Get Out of Hell Free" card, which should hammer home a few things about the intentions and tone of Hell to Pay: that the deeper mystical elements of DC's universe are brought to the surface as realistic concerns here, and that one shouldn't take the story's moving parts too seriously. Why this device has been made into a card, whether it actually functions as advertised, and why everyone seems to trust in its powers probably shouldn't be dwelled upon too much, as it's just like almost any other plot device engineered for Task Force X to fetch … not unlike in recent runs of comics. Yet, the prospect of redemption promised by the card does reinforce a thematic element in the storytelling, since all of the villains -- both the antiheroes of the Suicide Squad and the baddies hunting down the card -- have done things that they'd like to have absolved when entering the afterlife. This results in a compelling air of uncertainty surrounding the entire group's decision-making, since they're all participating in this mission in exchange for time off their sentences, tapping into philosophy of sorts.

It's a little jarring to hear and get used to Christian Slater's instantly identifiable voice as Deadshot, but those watching will need to do so because, unsurprisingly, the character takes a commanding role in Hell to Pay. While he's voiced the character before, the charismatic smarminess that Slater brings to Floyd Lawton dials his attitude up a few too many notches, skewing too roguish and not polished or professional enough to befit the assassin. After a little time with him, however, this tweaked Deadshot become entertaining as he navigates the rest of this iteration of the Suicide Squad, butting heads with the insistently non-lethal and stoic Bronze Tiger and the routine brashness of Boomerang; oddly, Slater's more sarcastic performance as Deadshot cuts into his rapport with the Aussie renegade, usually the one who's rough around the edges. Beyond Deadshot, Hell to Pay spreads its attention fairly evenly this time among the rest of the Suicide Squad, even minimizing Harley Quinn's participation to mostly one-liners and actions just about anyone else could've executed. Harley's taken a backseat as a less integral character this time around … and with how much exposure she's recently received, that's perfectly fine.

These exchanges between characters are critical, since the action-movie plotting executed by DC animation vet Alan Burnett (Mask of the Phantasm) relies on the standard, obligatory moving parts involved with pursuing an item that doesn't pose an immediate threat. Burnett and director Sam Liu get this, though, becoming clear in the outlandish violence and insistent dark humor splattered throughout the film, which really doesn't need much more than searching for a MacGuffin-like item to keep it all glued together. Instead, the motivations for villains of all stripes to acquire this card becomes the narrative thrust to Hell to Pay, which draws in quite a few interesting entities from many corners of the DC universe, most of which I'm going to avoid spoiling; however, it's hard not to mention how the presence of a new, zany iteration of Doctor Fate factors into the events, which works alongside Alan Burnett's amusing yet still dark and introspective scripting. The splattering of blood, violent rhetoric, and the brand's willingness to kill people off earns its R-rating through smartly orchestrated confrontations, but not offensively so and not without being tethered to reasonable interactions and reactions between villains as people.

The live-action Suicide Squad movie lowered the bar for future movies about the group, so claiming that this one's better than David Ayer's stab at Task Force X isn't saying much. Thing is, Hell to Pay actually feels like one of the chaotic plots jumped off the comic-book pages, besting DC's prior live-action attempt with more organic and humorous dialogue, a willingness to go all-out with violence where necessary, and a firm grip on the antiheroes as clashing ex-villains who may not bond after all's said and done. Whether it's on the same level of Assault on Arkham is something else altogether; however, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, both end up doing about the same amount right and wrong amid the action. Despite not being entirely connected to this second animated film, Assault on Arkham succeeded with established world-building around Task Force X and injecting brazen humor into dark conditions. Hell to Pay doesn't abide by the same rules or engage in that caliber of world-building, but it has a bloody blast in getting the conflicted morality and camaraderie between its team members right.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'The Commuter' a Wobbly Thrillride Regardless of Neeson

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C

It's been about a decade now since Lian Neeson enjoyed a rebooting of sorts for his career, in which he took on the grizzled, quietly trained yet semi-retired persona of Bryan Mills, whose "particular set of skills" as an ex-CIA officer helped him locate foreign human traffickers who took his daughter. Since, he's unabashedly shaped his career around variations -- some subtle, others significant -- of this specific character type, especially under the direction of Jaume Collet-Serra, who sent him on an automobile chase in Unknown and on a plane in Non-Stop. What's left out of that equation? Putting Neeson's revamped hero persona on a train, of course, which the director has done with The Commuter, taking place almost entire between several cabins barreling down New York's public transit line on a pretty average day. Fatigue may be starting to set in with Neeson's repetition of similar heroic performances, but that isn't the only spot where Collet-Serra's oddly convoluted thriller flies off the rails.

This time, Neeson plays an ex-police detective, Michael MacCauley, who has transitioned to selling life insurance for something more safe and secure for his wife and college-bound son. Whole on the train ride home after a particularly tough day, complicated by emergent financial problems, MacCauley gets approached by a woman (Vera Farmiga) who strikes up a casual conversation about the social aspects of observation. What begins as a playful "experiment" between them evolves into the mysterious woman -- not a regular commuter on that particular ride -- offering MacCauley $100,000 to use his deduction and make a vague decision about the fate of one of the passengers, after the ex-detective to figure out who's the "right" passenger: the one who doesn't belong there. Moral uncertainty makes MacCauley second guess whether to do it, which leads the blond woman forcing his hand, creating a mystery for him to decipher and decisions to make about what to do … and who's trustworthy on the train.

Jaume Collet-Serra kept his previous Liam Neeson vehicles from dealing with too many of the symptoms of "been there, done that", but The Commuter doesn't pick up the speed to get this done, never fully getting away from the sensation that it's "Non-Stop On a Train" with the secrecy built around the ex-detective. There's a spark of novelty in the editing and structure of the film's beginning, showing the repetition and monotony of time passing in relation to MacCauley's daily train rides and the people with whom he interacts, underscored by his banter with the always-reliable Johnathan Banks. The ways MacCauley adjusts to the situation created by the woman's proposal fall into those of an active member of law enforcement, the only difference being that the ex-detective's morals and financial desperation could, in theory, sway his decision-making. Collet-Serra squeezes genuineness into how details are indirectly revealed about MacCauley's life instead of through point-blank exposition, but regardless of those efforts, it's just camouflaging another trapped, trained pro sleuthing through confined transit cabins.

The key difference separating The Commuter from some of Neeson's other action-thriller endeavors lies in the moral dilemma posed to MacCauley, in which he's given the opportunity to locate the right person on the train using his particular set of skills and receive a hefty payday for his efforts. Along with some Hitchcockian vibes, it's an echo of the thought-exercise presented by Richard Matheson in his short story "Button, Button", only instead of the ex-detective pushing a button to kill a stranger in exchange for money, he'd need to do some footwork in choosing the right stranger and marking them for un undisclosed fate; the assumption, naturally, is that the selected person would wind up dead. The creativity involved with breaking down and restructuring this premise around the ex-detective gets overridden by the nonsensical moving parts of the scenario, engineering an elaborate scheme so that Vera Farmiga's character and her employers remain hands-off from responsibility. They have a firmer grasp on who their target is than MacCauley, so making him jump through the hoops -- instead of just hiring a hitman -- appears intentionally contrived.

Can Liam Neeson save the day in The Commuter, both literally and figuratively? Not with quite the energy and physicality from a few years back, but he still brings enough of his statuesque and weatherworn appeal to MacCauley to enjoy that aspect of the ride, adding sturdiness to a handful of obligatory hand-to-hand brawls and moments of peril built around him staying on the train. The script relies on a mosaic of characters to reinforce the suspense of the ex-detective's sleuthing, though, where the passengers must have some identifiability and/or suspiciousness, and that's what proves to be a challenge for first-time screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi. They leave it to the variety of commuters to cope with the cumbersome exposition from which Neeson was (mostly) spared, from a mistreated girlfriend defending her boneheaded man to an obnoxious upper-crust stock broker and a twitchy musician, and the script's halfhearted attempt at a community bond between the everyday commuters gets derailed by the overtness of the outsiders, clearly pawns in a mystery.

Despite the messiness of the premise, there's still a streak of curiosity behind who the chosen passenger will be and why they've got a target on their back, which The Commuter does eventually reveal in its chaotic final act full of anticipated action-movie bluster involving high-speed trains. Too many short-lived red herrings and certain unconvincing moments in the performances leave the plot without many interesting directions it could take, and the revelations about the intended target of MacCauley's moral dilemma are as convoluted as they are clumsily tied to contemporary issues involving mistrust in law enforcement. Fact of the matter is, Neeson still knows how to entertain an audience while embodying this type of older, seasoned badass persona that he's discovered late in his career, and while The Commuter doesn't reach the same heights as his other collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra, it's still worth sticking it out until the end of the line to see how this version of his archetype attempts to pull this thing back on track.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'Girl Without Hands' Struggles to Balance Beauty, Bleakness

Directed by: Sebastien Laudenbach; Runtime 76 minutes
Grade: B-

The stories gathered together and retold by the Brothers Grimm have a reputation for being dark, but also timeless with the moral themes that they convey, often centered around greed, deceit, and the dangers of trusting strangers. Whether it's because Disney never got around to adapting the story or because the premise itself begins on such a sad note, The Girl Without Hands remains one of the lesser-known fairytales curated by the Brothers Grimm, despite being an explicit concentration of those ideas popularized in their other works. Perhaps that sort of story -- hinged on a swindled father, a desire for wealth, and a daughter who's forced to become handicapped as a result -- needs a more conceptual or avant-garde approach to visualize its almost-pessimistic grimness. French artist Sebastien Laudenbach catered to this idea with panel upon panel of meticulous hand-drawn animation, bringing to life The Girl Without Hands within a largely faithful, quietly lyrical and beautifully austere flow of artistry.

A single-child milling family lives near a stream, one which has experienced a decrease in flow and resulted in a lack of prosperity for the family. The child, a young girl, happily plays in the backyard of their home, frequently climbing the tree and cleansing herself in the meager water available. One day, the miller encounters a peculiar merchant in the wilderness who senses his plight, and thus proposes an offer to the ailing father: that if he hands over what's in his backyard, he'll be blessed with riches for the remainder of his life. Assuming the man was talking about the tree in his backyard, the miller agrees; however, unbeknownst to him, the agreement was actually referring to his young daughter. Circumstances of their agreement shift over the years as she grew into a woman, and the only way that this man -- now appearing to be a devil, if not the devil -- would accept the daughter is if her hands were cut off. Thus, the story follows her life after she loses her hands, impacting her family and future relationships.

Reminiscent of some of the sparser and less-detailed artistry found within the watercolor-like visuals from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Sebastien Laudenbach leaves open spaces on his canvas in creation of the atmosphere surrounding the miller's home and beyond. Laudenbach takes that aesthetic a step further, allowing broad, sometimes harsh brushstrokes and an absence of shading inside both faces and buildings to sway the film's ethereal presence between realism and other-worldliness, amplified by erratic jitters and in-and-out vanishing of facial features. There's very little dialogue in general, only used when necessary for story lucidity, but the silent opening allows those watching to purely absorb the craftsmanship orchestrated by Laudenbach and become submerged in his desired aesthetic, one of ethnic and chronological ambiguity. Every frame expresses a lot without needing dialogue; each freeform image, as cliche as it may sound, could be hung in a gallery and absorbed on standalone merits.

The Girl Without Hands is an inherently fickle tale, though, in which the demands of this devilish spirit are dictated by the story's commitment to chop off the girl's hands, twisting mysticism and purity of spirit in multiple directions for bleak purposes. Even knowing about the heart of the premise and the darkness that often follows the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the decisions made by the father and the plight of the daughter turn darker than expected, approaching the grim reflections and purposeful nihilism one might find in, say, one of Robert Bresson's moral fables. At times, especially when it comes to his perception of cleanliness, the capricious moving parts of the devil's demands make frustratingly little sense and aren't helped by the tale's disinterest in clarifying them; those watching must chalk up the demon's aversion to purity as a facet of his tastes, despite how infatuated he is with corrupting the miller's family. The magical aspects don't really follow any rules and obscure the devil's true desires, which hurts the film's well-paced transition into a portrait of the handicapped girl adjusting to her new normal.

Through the daughter's story of survival, discovering love, and the miracles of motherhood, The Girl Without Hands pours an assortment of emotional themes into its journey, though Sebastien Laudenbach spares his audience from the religious overtones of the Brothers Grimm's telling. By doing so -- and by being somewhat vague about whether it's a devil or The Devil™ pulling the strings -- Laudenbach allows the story's thematic intentions about wealth, negligence, and deception to flow through the mesmerizing artwork, tweaking its intentions for a message more easily embraced on a broader scale. There's bravery in how dishearteningly this animated film depicts the nature of temptation, but also insightfulness in how it cascades into the daughter's perception of offerings from strangers and how the purity of her resistance can see its rewards. Regardless of the despair, however, The Girl Without Hands continues to discover striking and mesmerizing beauty, both visual and emotional, in the darkest moments of her despondent journeys through a world very much befitting a Grimm fairytale.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]