Suicide Squad Called to Duty in Rousing 'Assault on Arkham'

Directed by: Jay Oliva; Ethan Spaulding; Runtime: 75 minutes
Grade: B-

Nowhere in the title Batman: Assault on Arkham will you find the words "Suicide Squad", which is both an unfortunate misrepresentation of DC's latest animated film and, well, somewhat understandable since most of the general public likely hasn't heard of the universe's government-helmed initiative. In so many words, the group's existence taps into some of the wasted potential among DC's lesser-known villains -- from passing assassins to the henchmen and throwaway "copies" of more renowned antagonists -- offering them a chance to cut their incarceration time by executing dangerous missions as a team of classified, off-the-books operatives. With the emerging popularity of the Arkham series of videogames (along with the recent TV iteration of Arrow), some of the Suicide Squad's notable recurring members have further increased in exposure, including the laser-sighted Deadshot and the Joker's bonkers ex-psychiatrist partner Harley Quinn. That makes it an opportune time for Warner Bros.' animation to get the band together for an outlandish hit on Gotham's iconic nuthouse, resulting in more brazen entertainment than one might expect of a Batman film that's only peripherally interested in Batman.

While it's getting released as a lead-in of sorts to the next entry in Rocksteady's videogame series, Assault on Arkham actually takes place a few years before the events of Arkham Asylum (and a little while after Origins), making it a prequel with loose, flexible ties to the games' Batman mythology. Unsurprisingly, there isn't a whole lot more to the premise beyond what's covered in the title: after a black-ops attempt to apprehend The Riddler (Matthew Gray Gubler) goes sideways thanks to the Dark Knight's (Kevin Conroy) nobler intervention, bigwig government agent Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder) -- "The Wall" -- assembles a crew of imprisoned villains to covertly raid his new place of residence, Arkham Asylum, to recover a sensitive device that was in his possession. Veterans to Waller's "Task Force X" (both in-universe and on a meta level) including Deadshot (Neal McDonough), a Joker-less Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), and Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis) are brought together with newbies -- Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio), and KGBeast (Nolan North) -- for a calculated strike involving sleight of hand and usage of their individual strengths, all while evading Batman's grasp both off and on the grounds.

Following Son of Batman's rickety, severe writing -- y'know, where Batman essentially gets date-raped and produces a murderous ten-year-old Marty Stu -- the straightforwardness of an antihero heist that isn't really focused on Batman at all, instead centered on some of his lesser-known rivals, sounds like an appealing distraction. While its own lapses in logic keep DC's latest direct-to-video animation from translating into a tighter overall story, from wonky lie detectors to flimsy security protocols at several levels of the asylum, Assault on Arkham soars past several of their recent offerings with its presentation of the villains and an unabashed, darkly-humorous attitude. Mostly, it's because the concept doesn't intrude on the characters' varied demeanors: there's plenty of breathing room for the loose-cannon leadership of Neal McDonough's excellent Deadshot and the supercharged quirk of Hynden Walch's jilted Harley Quinn, as well as Captain Boomerang's roguish gristle and the unlikely bond between King Shark (basically a cross between Bane and Croc) and the saucy Killer Frost. Allegiances fluctuate within the group amid the moving parts of Waller's plan(s), and the erratic rapport between their allowable one-note personas spices up the simplicity of casing Arkham.

Starting from the dubstep-infused intro to the Suicide Squad's roster that resembles a modern caper flick, Assault on Arkham doesn't take itself too seriously -- or, rather, very seriously at all -- which could make it somewhat divisive with those yearning for harder-nosed storytelling. Working from a script by Justice League: War's Heath Corson, the pairing of directors Jay Oliva (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and Ethan Spaulding (Son of Batman) have cranked out a mischievous tongue-in-cheek feature that's entirely aware of the B-list and C-list reputation of their merry band, allowing them to push the boundaries of "adult" vulgarity and self-reference in the space of the games' independent canon. While some of the violence and sexuality skews more towards the needlessly juvenile than maturity, namely in Harley's ... uh, infatuation with Deadshot (a carry-over from DC's recent books), its constant references to the external Batman universe are welcomingly lighthearted: visual triggers from Returns, verbal puns from Batman & Robin, and even a familiar Nolan-verse clown mask make appearances. Some predictable stabs at being "edgy" and on-the-nose Easter eggs stick out like sore thumbs, sure, but they're threaded into the narrative well-enough to dig them in context of what's going on, too.

As an action-driven story in the annals of the Batman mythology, this Assault on Arkham doesn't really accomplish much beyond being an overstated, amusing diversion, unsteadily juggling that "root for the bad guy" flip in perspective with seemingly-obligatory screen time with Bats and his bigger nemeses, including an excellent Troy Baker as the Clown Prince himself. The breakneck twists and turns involving the squad alternate between dubiousness and predictability (there's a big "gotcha!" that can be seen a good distance out), but the animation style's brisk action sequences and self-aware humor, surrounded by visual inspiration from the Arkham series of games, frequently offsets the shallow plotting. Despite some missteps, there's a fuse of enjoyment lit in how Warner Bros. worms "Task Force X" into the fray of the familiar setting -- along with Batman's well-restricted presence as their menacing foil, a smaller role for Kevin Conroy's iconic voice -- with no promises in who'll be escaping Arkham as the clashing personalities gleefully tear the place apart. Whether a Suicide Squad movie needs more than that is up for debate, since it doesn't reach the heights of Under the Red Hood or other "mature" glimpses at the Caped Crusader's progeny, but it ends up being a madcap explosion of fun regardless.

Woodley Struggles for Freedom in Cumbersome 'Divergent'

Directed by: Neil Burger; Runtime: 139 minutes
Grade: C+

As some modern movie adaptations of popular young-adult books elevate expectations of what they're capable of, there are a slate of recent others -- from The Mortal Instruments to The Host and Percy Jackson -- that serve as a reminder of the turbulence still plaguing the subgenre. Despite Hollywood's progress in the halls of Hogwarts and the districts of Panem, there's still a lot of kinks that haven't been worked out in balancing solid filmmaking, story reverence, and respect to a loyal fanbase in other franchises. Hoping to strike while the Mockingjay iron's hot, Summit/Lionsgate called upon The Illusionist and Limitless director Neil Burger to take a shot at Divergent, Veronica Roth's familiarly-themed series of books about dystopian government control and the civilization's youth choosing a set personality type and way of living at an early age. While this mostly-respectful yet muddled adaptation leaves one hungry for the magic of Burger's more inventive style and the novel's sharper edge, there's still a spark generated by the performances and themes of non-conformity that boost it above most of its other tepid contemporaries.

Divergent takes place at an undisclosed period in human history following a vague catastrophe, walling off the city of Chicago in a quasi-quarantine. With no knowledge of what lies beyond its fence, those living within the city cohabitate in a utopic system hinged on factions: groups who live by and obey specific virtues of peace (Amity), truth (Candor), intelligence (Erudite), bravery (Dauntless), and selflessness (Abnegation). Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her family (Tony Goldwyn; Ashley Judd; Ansel Elgort) belong to the last group, Abnegation, who are tasked with governing the city's population -- a paradigm challenged by the Erudite, led by Jeannine Matthews (Kate Winslet) -- and caring for the "faction-less" castoffs. On their sixteenth birthday, teenagers in each faction are administered a virtual-reality aptitude simulation and are required to choose which of these groups they belong to based on this test (and their individual outlook), while those who place in multiple mental spheres, called "divergent", are viewed as dangerous. Beatrice, always rebellious against her faction's unyielding self-sacrifice, falls into that category. With help hiding her secret, she chooses a different faction: Dauntless.

Pointing out Veronica Roth's influences isn't difficult, from a choosing ceremony and merit-based districts to a singular heroine whose lack of bow or wand really isn't fooling anyone, yet the author brings some thematic and visceral bite to the table that reconstructs the ideas in a distinct, albeit far-fetched, environment. The script from Snow White and the Huntsman's Evan Daugherty and Game of Thrones' Vanessa Taylor regrettably muzzles some of that energy, allowing on-the-nose expository dialogue and a safe, cold shoulder from violence to expose the story's resemblance to others like it. Areas where Burger's imaginative direction would be expected to take flight -- notably during the mental simulations -- are awkwardly truncated and obscured without the benefit of Tris' point-of-view narration. This becomes tricky when she uses the info to inform her decision towards the "warrior" class that's opportunely designed to shape her into a hero, which feels more like contrived recklessness than an expression of daring self-discovery.

The bulk of Divergent takes place in the rocky pit of the Dauntless training facility, the space designed to harden Tris and build her camaraderie with other initiates, including her ex-Candor bestie, Christina (almost-perfectly portrayed by Zoe Kravitz). It's a drawn-out stretch of hand-to-hand combat and artillery training that's intended to be a dangerous zone, elevated in the book by strict high-stakes competition and cutthroat brutality. Unfortunately, a lack of risks taken in the filmmaking transform Tris' physical metamorphosis into little more than a drably-shot bootcamp, never seeming like she's really in jeopardy. The script contends that she's on shaky ground -- primarily through verbal bullying from the ominous head-instructor, Erik (Jai Counrtney), and how her name dips on a ranking board -- but the prolonged initiation lacks the convincing peril it needs to offset cinematic expectations, namely in how the film underuses her competitive antagonist, Peter (Miles Teller), a cocky nuisance who'd easily get put in his place by someone like The Karate Kid's bloodthirsty Johnny.

What Neil Burger and his writers do well, once you've cut through some of the daftness, lies in how Tris' insecurity gets sharpened against the whetstone of the Dauntless facility and through the desolate expanses of abandoned Chicago, along with the developing mystery and secrecy of her "inconclusive" personality. While Shailene Woodley might not fit what readers pictured in the book, she skillfully navigates Tris' internal disarray over her test results and resolve to discover who she's meant to be, especially when she reveals her selfishness, unpredictable reactions, and moments where she embraces her new faction's gusto. The depth of Tris' character elevates the dystopian film amid its anemic representation of the city's uneven social climate and witchhunt for those who share her divergence, along with her developing rapport with Four (Theo James), her stoic-yet-intimidating instructor whose interest develops beyond a teacher's concern. Both Woodley and Theo James elevate the pair's typical YA-novel flirtations with uniquely skewed chemistry, especially as James surprises with how he enriches Four's sympathetic history and chinks in his armor.

Ultimately, though, it's discouraging to see Burger's astute direction get bogged down in Divergent's dullness and predictability, despite its credible performances and respectable symbolic intentions. Even as the stakes are bolstered by the last act's science-fiction elements and the broken nature of conforming to the faction system -- powered by renegade serums and military strikes amid the city's maze -- the cumbersome rhythm of it all resembles the subtle lull of a train arriving at a recognizable destination. Instead of assembling something that'd break away from other franchises of its ilk, director Burger ends up playing too by-the-numbers while riding the rails along its climactic beats, even when it does mildly diverge from Roth's text (and further employs Kate Winslet, boosting the gray-area complexity of the Erudite's leader). The drama that's brought to the screen in this adaptation will satisfy those yearning to see their spirited heroine in motion, but the origin of this promising film franchise needed more dauntless bravery and less passive compliance to fuel an insurgence among its contemporaries.

Aronofsky's Ambitious, Abstract Take on 'Noah' Captivates

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky; Runtime: 138 minutes
Grade: B+

Going into Noah with the expectation that Darren Aronofsky's going to color within the lines of gospel would be a mistake, though it's understandable why some might expect him to do so. The name Noah in itself and the premise lying underneath his narrative are, after all, modeled from a brief, fantastical story told in the book of Genesis (and also appears in other religion's texts), which Aronofsky became interested in at a very young age. What he sees in the parable will differ from the way others view the saga of the great flood, though, and the man tasked by a higher power to build an animal-preserving vessel worth weathering it: Aronofsky embraces the line between devotion and madness, the harshness behind purging all life from the planet, and the haunting moral conflict in standing by and observing the benevolent creator's judgment. There's a lot of room for interpretation around "Noah's Ark", and Aronofsky uses that freedom to craft a mesmerizing vision with a flexible grasp on spirituality and the integrity of mankind, though it's also an unsubtle tonal departure that won't be for everyone.

Noah begins with antiquated title cards and brisk stylistic flashes into the origin of humanity, introducing us to the three children born of the Garden of Eden -- Cain, Abel, and Seth -- and how the desirous and destructive side of humans led to Earth's corruption, like a more malignant and unsustainable form of urban sprawl. The descendants of Seth, however, safeguard and nourish the world outside the corruption's reach to the best of their ability, a task passed down through generations as they survive on only what's absolutely necessary from the earth. Noah (Russell Crowe) marks the last of the lineage (along with his children), living off the land with his family as wanderers in the sparse landscape, revering the Creator's design through a pure life. One day, Noah receives a mystical sign from above in the form of a raindrop which immediately manifests into a flower upon hitting the ground, followed later by haunting visions of a great flood, the purging of mankind, and the preservation of the Creator's other creatures to begin again. The message becomes clear: Noah must build a vessel to house the beasts, else they'll meet the same fate as the lost humans.

The uniquely hued and unsullied expansiveness of Iceland provides an ideal setting for Noah, which is very much the work of the filmmakers behind The Fountain's philosophical whimsy and sensory splendor. Aronofsky approaches the concept like a pseudo-apocalyptic fantasy allegory instead of strict adherence to religious intentions, without any real way of distinguishing chronology without the viewer's meta-contextual input. Lyrical cinematography guided by Black Swan's Matthew Libatique, coupled with Clint Mansell's expressive score and precise visual effects that bolster its dreaminess, enriches that otherworldly essence of the setting through stark silhouettes against ethereal skylines (reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's work), hikes through the disintegrated ruins of unsuccessful civilization, and sharply-edited time progressions of an evolving stream within the landscape. The organic, desolate atmosphere convincingly sets the stage for a clash between preservers and consumers of the gifts bestowed to them, along with the presence of the Watchers, gnarly rock monsters punished for their prior intervention in the affairs of man.

Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have shaped the central conceit behind Noah into a versatile, somewhat cryptic composite of the customary versions of the story and fanciful divergences, an attempt to make it accessible for both the devout and the skeptical as a piece of dramatic entertainment. Opportune magical touches elevate the fantasy milieu, from the inclusion of mystical rocks used for igniting fire and shamanic medicine to sedative smoke for the animals aboard the ark, which uniquely work around situational problems. They've done the same thing with their vision of the "Creator", too: a benign yet restrained omniscience whose participation in the events leading up to the flood have been carefully kept at bay to elevate the human aspects of the story, without diminishing his importance or the reverence displayed by Noah's family. A fusion of theology and pragmatism underneath the Creator's touch takes shape as a result, while forging a film that's spiritual without being specific.

An austere balance between faith and personal perception arises in Noah, allowing Aronofsky to comment on the nature of belief as the descendant of Seth constructs a vessel specifically made for not saving human lives. Russell Crowe admirably sculpts his transition from a self-possessed druidic protector to a burdened man whose faith isn't allowed to falter, crafting a solemn persona that gradually simmers as his resolve gets pushed almost to a point of zealousness. The characters' reactions to his descent are potent and nuanced, if a bit one-note. Jennifer Connelly provides an ample and sympathetic offset to Noah's steadfastness as his wife Naameh, while Logan Lerman gives his middle son, Ham, a certain hangdog self-interest that works well with their clash over his livelihood following the flood. The conflict created over their adopted daughter, Ila, and her place on the ark is emphatically embraced by Emma Watson, too, while his father Methuselah's sagely interjections and light comic relief are properly aged by Anthony Hopkins.

Perhaps the most challenging element of Noah comes in its depiction of the wickedness and entitlement of humanity -- the purpose behind the Creator's purge in the first place -- which often goes blissfully overlooked in other harmlessly jubilant representations of the material. Helmed by Tabul-cain, with Ray Winstone uncannily channeling Mickey Rourke, the abandoned souls of mankind are painted in broad, discomforting strokes through the temptation of violence and the degradation of their moral compass, lending fuel to the film's blockbuster scale once the time of the flood arrives. Granted, its obligation towards the epic scope of a battle reminiscent of LOTR's Helm's Deep feels somewhat cumbersome; yet, there's weight in its thematic purpose, supporting the Creator's judgment and offering a gradient of virtue based on the innocents caught in this melancholic grand design. Giving the deviants a face and a voice becomes the ugly side to the great flood that, despite the film's tone rushing in a severe direction, feels vital to appreciating the importance of the story itself.

It took bravado for Darren Aronofsky to get his hands dirty with an above-$100m project focused on the hazards of higher-being belief and the ugliness of human fallibility and egotism, yet he makes every penny and moment count in the moral spectacle of it all, cresting higher once the flood arrives. There's no denying the uptick in bleakness once the magnificently-constructed ark has shuttered its doors, where the liberties taken by the writers manifest into harrowing conflicts built around interpreting and undermining the Creator's goals. However, there are also rays of hard-earned faith in human nature and perspective once Noah rides out the storm and reaches its destination, rewarding the rollercoaster ride with bittersweet, intimate moments of catharsis and resolved turmoil that I'd like to think will resonate with both believers and cynics. There's a lot of breathtaking ambition crammed into this liberal reimaginging of a short segment from scripture, and while it's not watertight in its emotional integrity or indulgent blockbuster inclinations, there's a lot of distinct, fearless beauty to behold.