'Suicide Squad' Vexes with Savvy Characters in Messy Exploits

Directed by: David Ayer; Runtime: 123 minutes
Grade: C

Even though they've seen a drastic uptick in exposure and popularity over the past couple of years, the Suicide Squad has been kicking around the DC comics universe for a long time. Devised as a novel way of explaining how some of the villains -- mostly in Batman's neck of the woods -- manage to get out of prison and continue doing their bad-guy thing, cutting their sentences with "good deeds", the group has naturally experienced a number of changes since the '80s. As of late, the most notable inclusion comes in Harley Quinn, the jesterly wild-card girlfriend of The Joker introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, who has enjoyed her own popularity since DC restarted their continuity with the "New 52", which made her a focal member of this Suicide Squad and gave her a jubilantly humorous comic series of her own. That's the world David Ayer aims to bring to life with his take on the Suicide Squad, and despite clearly grasping the characters and the attitude that hallmarks their antiheroic endeavors , he leaves a lot to be desired in the movie erupting and shattering around them.

Suggested as an initiative to build a resistance team against meta-human threats, the Suicide Squad -- actually called Task Force X -- takes shape through the maneuvers of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a high-level government operative with deep knowledge of the villains they've got under lock and key. From this rogues gallery, she sets her sights on a number of flexible, potentially neutral criminals to fill out the roster, a group of individuals she could throw into missions and ultimately blame if their dangerous objectives go awry. That includes Deadshot (Will Smith), a constant member of the team in the comics, whose impeccable abilities with firearms are accurately represented by his nickname. Others are also selected for their "gifts", from the flame-launching El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and the precision of Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) to the aquatic mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), yet they don't hold a candle the kind of power possessed by the dual-identity witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), under control by Waller. Then, there's Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose claim to fame amounts to ... uh, well, she's crazy. Trigger-happy and a crackerjack swinger of bats, but driven insane due to her experiences with The Joker.

Chances are pretty good that someone will read the above paragraph and say, repeatedly: "Who?" It's an obstacle faced by most writers tackling the Suicide Squad, and it's frequently addressed by fresh introductions at the beginning of their stories, often in point-blank, violent flashbacks that illustrate who they are and why they're incarcerated in the first place. Powered by energetic music and echoing how both recent comics and the animated film Batman: Assault on Arkham handled this, David Ayer's Suicide Squad sets aside the majority of the film's beginning to introduce these versions of the characters, from the melancholy mixture of Deadshot's assassination business and family ties to a start-to-finish portrayal of how psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel becomes the equally-pale, mentally-twisted minion of Jared Leto's Joker. Therefore, despite the inclusion of one of Deadshot's assassination attempts and a few run-ins with Ben Affleck's Batman, action isn't so much of a priority at the beginning as making the general audience give a crap about these lesser-known villains on a deeper level.

Does Ayer succeed in doing so? ... sorta. He makes it easy to sympathize with Will Smith's Deadshot through conversations between the character and his daughter, allowing Smith's gruff yet considerate magnetism to shine as a deadly assassin who's been separated from the one positive element in his life. This spin on Harley Quinn, on the other hand, is more complicated. Instead of going the route taken by contemporary stories of Harley, in which she's reluctantly pulling away from The Joker and discovering her own strengths, Ayer goes with a more traditional take on the character: she's obsessed with the abusive, exploitative bad-guy lover who made her insane. Thing is, there's usually a playfulness about them hinged on The Joker's volatile and calculated schemes, yet the more serious, tatted-up and abrasively flamboyant crime lord crafted by Jared Leto's peculiar Clown Prince of Crime sours this bond, not that he's given much scheming -- or screen time -- to work with in the first place. With a quirky New York accent, devilish glances, and impeccably animated body language, Margot Robbie shines as this raw projection of Harley Quinn's traits that stands apart from the oddness of her Puddin', enlivening scenes in her flashbacks that serve as the origin story for her warped attitude. "Mad Love" this isn't, though.

The rest of this Suicide Squad suffers a similar fate to the secondary team members in the books: aside from El Diablo, whose back-history possesses enough emotion to merit a lengthier flashback, each one gets reduced to shallow roguish traits, accompanied by cheeky title cards explaining as such. Writer/director Ayer has plenty of experience with personalities like this, from Denzel Washington's Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day to the ragtag soldiers in his tank drama Fury, which leads one to have a little faith in his ability to flesh out these types of characters and band them together in a short amount of time. He's able to toss Task Force X into the fray and relish their clashes in personality, but something's missing in how he maneuvers these villains from being at loggerheads to them weaving together into a unit, largely because of the size of the squad. David Ayer excels at handling characters and teams who are already lived-in, like the established squad in Fury who gradually bring one new guy into their fold, yet he struggles here with building connective tissue between numerous strangers in the midst of conflict -- even though he still tries to reap the thematic benefits of them eventually doing so.

David Ayer throttles the members of his Suicide Squad -- overseen by a staunch military wunderkind, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) -- into a gritty, crumbled corner of a metropolitan city for an assignment that conveniently emerges during their creation ... and the narrative that gets everyone there is incredibly patchy, steeped in cataclysmic formula and familiarity that goes to reckless lengths to elevate the stakes. Granted, most modern-era stories involving Task Force X don't boast terribly grounded or novel problems to solve, merely giving the bad guys something to do while they're bickering with one another, and Ayer's story isn't without flirtations with ethical dilemmas, human emotion, and covert intrigue. For every step forward that Suicide Squad takes with its fusion of dark humor and somber reflections on the villains, it gets knocked back by drab, vacuous plotting involving boundless witchcraft and the machinations of Viola Davis' imposing Amanda Waller. Peppered with amusing quips and insistent interruptions from a gleeful Harley Quinn, this end-of-the-world scenario yields a tone that's unsure as to whether it should be zany and subversive or more aligned with the doom-and-gloom dramatics of the DC universe's other films, or both.

Suicide Squad culminates in a loud, vigorous charge through dilapidated streets and emptied buildings filled with energized action, but writer/director Ayer makes it difficult to have too much fun with the chaos of it all by relying on waves of generic, faceless enemies to shoot at within the unimpressive template of a Hollywood ending. The script expends so much energy trying to get the spirit of the squad right that it neglects to craft a rational threat for this Dirty Half-Dozen to conquer, producing a royal mess of an ending that doesn't mesh with the relationship-building and handling of the caliber of stakes that came before it. After the turbulent critical receptions that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman received, this needed to stand out as the first indication that the DC cinematic universe had its sights on a dependable creative destination for its forthcoming entries. Despite all the potential within its subversive tone, casting choices, and David Ayer's renowned grasp on lending depth to rough-around-the-edges renegades, Suicide Squad doesn't quite succeed in its mission.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Classic Musings: The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Long before it became en vogue to condemn the bombardment of superhero origin movies and remakes coming out of Hollywood, Rouben Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro excelled at being both of those, in a roundabout way, as a new talkie adaptation of Johnston McCulley's "The Curse of Capristrano". In the height of the swashbuckler genre's popularity, already enjoying success with another recent remake of a Douglas Fairbanks-starring silent film, The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, this lavish production sets up a dashing contender in Tyrone Power as it tells how a handsome man from a wealthy family uses both his stature and a black-clad secret identity for the good of the people. Dusty, genuine production value, charismatic performances, and a small bounty of superb duels later on prove that redoing the Zorro mythology for a new era was certainly worth the effort, leaving a mark on the vigilante hero genre that still lingers after nearly three-quarters of a century.

The Mark of Zorro charts the transformation of Don Diego Vega (Power) into the sword-wielding vigilante of legend, starting off in his military service overseas. Popular and established as an exceptional dueler among his colleagues, Diego receives an urgent call to return back to California, where he has little knowledge of what's happened in his absence. He discovers that the government has taken a more authoritative control of the area, lorded over by a new mayoral entity (J. Edward Bromberg) -- alongside a mean, yet capable captain, Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) -- whose heavy-handed taxation and abuse of policy has resulted in a destitute living situation for the commoners. Instead of taking on the government head-on, Diego brainstorms an alternative method of implementing change, maintaining a somewhat aloof, hoity-toity version of himself in the public eye to divert from his scheme: donning black clothes, riding a black horse, and robbing profiteers to give back to the poor as the mythical freedom fighter Zorro.

Much as there's little difficulty in seeing the influence that this character has upon modern-day superheroes like Batman, it's also easy to see how the likes of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel impacted the origin story of Zorro: a melting pot of folklore, double identities, targeting the privileged and battling against injustice. What's compelling about Zorro, especially in how it comes to life in the ‘40s version, lies in how Diego Vega actively uses both his public persona and the threat imposed by the bandit Zorro in his scheme against the government. Between the gorgeously-captured stone walls and throughout the heat-baked streets of a Californio province before the transition into a U.S. state, Diego creates this dangerous yet constructive alter ego that isn't just a means of protecting his identity, but also a device he uses as a sort of bargaining chip in the subterfuge furthered by his foolishly highbrow public persona. Seeing his machinations fall into place becomes one of the film's core strengths.

Interestingly, Zorro himself doesn't appear too often in The Mark of Zorro. It takes some time for Diego Vega to reach his home and learn that the situation's dire enough to require such an unlawful presence, but even after Zorro gallops onto the scene in his first dramatic arrival, the masked hero only shows up when he's absolutely necessary. This isn't a story built on Zorro's grand escapades and legendary duels for the audience to marvel at, but on how the looming and enigmatic threat of his emergence falls into the plans of Diego Vega to influence the government. Because of this, a lot of pressure falls on the shoulders of Tyrone Power's charisma through the many hats that his character wears, something that comes naturally to the pencil-mustached actor in scenes of both roguish gusto as a bandana-adorned outlaw and as a self-involved nobleman. From sleight-of-hand parlor tricks and schmoozing with the bureaucrats to the cautious ways he conceals and displays his affection for Linda Darnell's Lolita, Tyrone Power's rendition of Zorro weaves together into a subtly complex charm that's a joy to behold.

Instead, The Mark of Zorro operates around a different brand of gravitas and thrills, hinged on the facets of Diego's identity. As the falsified version of Diego, there's bittersweet amusement and anticipation in seeing how he deceives his parents -- along with the gravelly-voiced man of the cloth, Fray Filipe (Eugene Pallette) -- and lures the bureaucrats into his trap, ever on the cusp of being discovered. When he comes toe-to-toe with Esteban Pasquale, there's something else in the air: suspicion, masterfully portrayed by Basil Rathbone's cunning, yet composed and not overly malicious villainy. And while Zorro does see the light of day, much of the hero's antics involve storming in and out on horseback or appearing from the shadows, heightening the commoners' expectancy of when and how their champion will show his covered face again. Despite falling into the swashbuckler genre, the excitement throughout most of this film has little to do with the volume of swordplay or intense chases, instead working with the suspense in how Diego amplifies the legend of his alter-ego with moves not unlike those made with pieces on a chessboard.

Despite the cleverness, The Mark of Zorro doesn't do much to make its audience second-guess where these moves are headed. So, when something occurs like the legendary sword duel between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, it's unsurprising because of the likelihoods of Diego's plan and the obvious nature of where the story's serialized escapade was destined to go. Frankly, that doesn't really matter when the swashbuckling gets as vigorous and well-orchestrated as it does here, with the sweat on the two men's brows and the unkempt nature of their appearances progressing with each parry and blitzed forward motion -- one of the finest stage fencing duels committed to film. A culmination of stratagems, political strife, and family legacy produces a dazzling climax for The Mark of Zorro amid this spirited battle, smartly concluding the story in a way that could either complete the Zorro mythology in a blaze of revolutionary glory or open the door for further superheroic adventures. No sequel hook or stingers necessary, just the notion that there will always be wrongs for the man behind the mask to right.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Art, Parenting, and Narcissism Clash in Dubious 'Family Fang'

Directed by: Jason Bateman; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C

The subjectivity and integrity of different forms of art has become a unique talking point in indie dramas as of late, from the nature of counterfeit works and performance role-reversals to the struggle to overcome physical ailments in creating one's artistic pursuits. In his second directorial feature, Jason Bateman utilizes the bizarre, slightly twisted nature of rebellious performance art as the cornerstone for family drama, one with dark undertones about raising children amid such an adventurous lifestyle and how it impacts the trustworthiness and bonds formed between them. The Family Fang presents nuanced, unique performances from director Bateman and Nicole Kidman as their characters discover whether their crazy theatrical parents have really died or staged their death in another stunt, and while the film initially touches upon intriguing musings about the validity of their art and the merits of their parenting approach, it gets too hung up on its concept to properly grasp the depth of their relationships.

Tightly adapting from the bestselling novel from Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang centers on a brother-sister duo, Annie and Baxter Fang, who grew up as the offspring of a renowned couple responsible for daring works of performance art. Their pieces range from cautiously disturbing musical numbers to outright violent displays in public venues, building to a body of work that earned mastermind Caleb Fang (Christopher Walken) and his partner in crime, Camille (Maryann Plunkett), a modest but sustainable cult following. Several decades have passed, and the children have grown into creative professionals of their own: Annie has become a celebrated actress, though her popularity and public persona have waned as of late, and Baxter ekes out a living as a novelist and freelance journalist. When their parents go missing, with a bloodied car left as evidence, the two Fang children are forced to confront the possibility that their disappearance might be either a murder or yet another elaborate hoax.

Jason Bateman directs The Family Fang into a slightly surreal, Charlie Kauffman-like tempo, cleverly keeping the bizarre upbringing and idiosyncratic personalities of the Fang children -- infantile behaviors, struggles with substance abuse, mistrust of their parents -- within the boundaries of realism. Tangled between "flashbacks" involving the performance pieces of their youth, which appear in gritty footage reminiscent of home movies, the film illustrates where these unusual public displays of art have changed their personality traits into the grown-ups they've become, both in their creative aspects and their jaded viewpoints of the normal world. These traits also give the leading actors slightly unique characters for Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman to embody: Annie's hesitation, petulance and lack of maturation find an acerbic home in Kidman, while the more subdued attitude of Baxter drains Bateman of most of his comedic-relief energy, skewing more pensive and melancholy. Annie's easily the more intriguing character of the two, but their chemistry results in a uniquely damaged pair of siblings.

It's understandable that the Fang children were affected by their youth considering the shocking, subversive nature of the performance pieces in which they were involved. These aren't the staged moral thought-exercises or closed-off artistic displays one sees on YouTube nowadays, but real, live situations that incorporate bank heists, murders, even the appearance of explosives next to an infant, crafted with a touch of authenticity by Bateman that's designed to leave the viewer unsettled whenever the story cuts away to them. The Family Fang works hard to make the validity of this dangerous creativity its central feature, even going so far as to stop and have a pair of art critics literally debate the deeper intentions of the Fangs' body of work, insisting that Caleb and Camille Fang are relevant enough to thrive off this artistry. Through this, and through the narcissistic viewpoint of Christopher Walken's abrasive Caleb, The Family Fang takes on a hostile tone toward subjectivity and the dedication to one's artform, deliberately intended to not be enjoyable because of how this contentiousness factors into Caleb Fang's persona.

The Family Fang hits the road and picks up the pace once Annie and Baxter confront the possibility that their parents' disappearance might be yet another entry into their performance-art portfolio, treated by the authorities as the next in a series of highway rest-stop murders. Lots of plain exposition -- helped by interviews taken from a documentary on the Fang family -- bluntly highlights the points throughout their childhood when they were most traumatized and how they've coped by maintaining a bond, and the enigmas of their parents' disappearance use that information to create a solemn mystery alongside how "A and B" could make sense of their parents' departure. Unfortunately, many of director Bateman's deeper intentions are undone by loose ends and questionable choices hinged on the notoriety of the Fang family itself, undermining points that the story emphasizes about the dedicated and consuming nature of performance art. In the end, The Family Fang resembles the family's stunts: well-performed and affective in the moment, but only without any scrutiny or follow-up on what'd happen next.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]