Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad had a winning formula that seemed impossible to screw up. A ragtag collection of popular villains and antiheroes played by talented actors teaming up for a wacky mission. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out.
Suicide Squad is not irredeemable. There are enjoyable elements, and even rare flashes of greatness. But the fun romp that was advertised is buried under what is, quite frankly, a mess.
Let’s start with the good, and that begins and ends with the lead characters.
Deadshot, played by Will Smith, lands the most effectively. A versatile actor who has mastered both comedy and drama, Will Smith is the source of Suicide Squad‘s biggest laughs in addition to some poignant moments. Deadshot is also the movie’s most fleshed-out character, tied only with Harley Quinn.
Harley was easily the most popular and anticipated member of Suicide Squad, and Margot Robbie’s performance lives up to the hype. There is simply no better choice for the first major live-action Harley Quinn than Margot Robbie, who takes ownership of the role and dominates her scenes with mischievous relish. For the most part, this is the beloved character come to life.
I say "for the most part" because despite a great performance, some aspects of Harley’s characterization did bug me, most notably how sexualized she is. And it’s not the empowering kind of sexy, either; the camera lingers on her body quite gratuitously, and the flashbacks depict her more as Joker’s arm candy than as his kickass sidekick/demented love interest. Harley is one of the comics’ most complex and strangely endearing characters,Deadshot and Harley Quinn and she’s come a long way, branching out and away from the Joker’s side. So it’s a frustrating disservice to the character to have her fall victim to Suicide Squad‘s faux "edginess".
Speaking of the Joker, Jared Leto’s acting on its own is very good, but I’m not quite sold on Suicide Squad‘s interpretation of the character just yet. Part of that is because his role is so small, we barely get a sense of who he is.
Another standout is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. She’s a perfect fit for this role, a no-nonsense, unlikable authority figure almost as cruel as the villains themselves.
Even some of the secondary characters were fun. Who knew that Jai Courtney, often described as totally lacking in charisma, would absolutely shine as Captain Boomerang?
Despite that, though, most of the team is woefully underdeveloped. Boomerang is good for a few laughs, but that’s it. Katana appears out of nowhere a third of the way in and hardly contributes. Killer Croc just grunts some one-liners. Slipknot is a complete non-entity. The only character with any story arc, and one that actually works well, is El Diablo, which was a welcome surprise.
Characters are the foundation that a team-up movie like Suicide Squad should be built on. The first act focuses entirely on those characters, and it’s all the better for it. Mind you, it’s not too great. The first half hour or so is incredibly choppy, as we’re introduced to the squad individually via expository narration, each entrance accompanied by a different song. It’s a clumsy mishmash, but it at least prioritizes the cast.
At this point you might be thinking, "Hey, this review’s okay so far, maybe the movie isn’t that bad!" Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But then the first act ended. And it all came crashing down.
Once the team is gathered and the mission begins, Suicide Squad devolves into a series of indistinguishable action scenes, interminable stretches of shooting lots of bullets at lots of literally faceless CGI monsters. Everything blurs together in a monotonous muddle, interrupted by out-of-place flashback sequences, all with terrible editing to boot.
I could almost see the scissors and glue, cutting and pasting the film to try to make it salvageable. For example, worse than the Joker’s lack of screen time is the fact that he should have been in this movie even less. Flashbacks aside, his entire subplot adds nothing to the story and should have been omitted entirely.
El DiabloI could also feel the movie being pulled in many directions, resulting in an incoherent narrative and jarring tonal inconsistency. Sometimes it tries to be grim and edgy, but in an ill-conceived, juvenile kind of way. Sometimes it aims for whimsical humour, but some of the jokes that should be funny (like Harley’s) don’t really land, thanks to the wonky editing. This is likely a reflection of the scramble to do damage control after the failure of Batman v Superman and the success of Suicide Squad‘s own comedic trailers. And sometimes it wants to be an epic superhero blockbuster, which is absolutely the wrong way to go.
All of it builds up to the ultimate generic climax: a cataclysmic device shooting a beam of light into the sky. And at the center of it are two truly atrocious villains, one of whom is just a hunk of shoddy CGI. It’s the finale to almost every superhero movie since The Avengers. And the worst part is that Suicide Squad doesn’t even need this kind of ending.
Would it have killed them to go small for this one? The Suicide Squad are not the Avengers or the Justice League. For all of Waller’s talk about metahuman armies, the squad barely has any metahumans in it. Most of their skill sets involve guns and fists, lacking the awe and dazzle of high-profile superpowers. This makes them a poor match for a large-scale, effects-heavy blockbuster. That’s a huge reason why most of the action scenes fall flat.
No, the Suicide Squad works best as more of a ragtag black-ops team undergoing high-risk but covert missions. A smaller-scale operation, like, say, the Assault on Arkham animated movie, or simply having the Joker as the main villain instead of Enchantress, would have been so much better. It would have at least had a more unique, fresh, and interesting formula, fewer bland action scenes, and far more room for character interactions.
Because all of the aforementioned great characters amount to absolutely nothing if they don’t get time to be themselves, to talk, or to bounce off each other. The bar scene from the trailers is the only good part of the movie’s second half for exactly that reason. But Suicide Squad‘s biggest mistake is having next to none of that, squandering the natural chemistry of its talented cast and compelling antiheroes.
Thus Suicide Squad answers the question: how do you make a terrible meal out of incredible ingredients? What’s most disappointing is how great it could have been.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Subpar)

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
There are a lot of ways to describe Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s ambitious. It’s different. It’s emotional. It’s borderline crazy. For Harry Potter fans, it’s a lot to digest. But ultimately, it is a triumph. Because at its heart is a story driven by great characters and tied together with powerful themes.
There’s no denying that many Harry Potter fans will feel overwhelmed reading the Cursed Child script. The story goes to places that I doubt any of us expected, which can be both exciting and disorienting. Many presumed rules of the universe are shaken. And several developments and twists challenge our perceptions of the original stories and characters.
Thus, as with any follow-up to a beloved pop culture phenomenon, it’s important to approach Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with an open mind. The original stories must be taken off the legendary pedestal that we’ve placed them on, frozen and untouchable, for the past 9 years. Because Cursed Child is utterly unafraid of playing around in that world. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it uses the past as a springboard for the future.
The loosest outline of the main story, involving kids dealing with magical artifacts and getting into crazy and dangerous situations, is a typical Harry Potter adventure. Yet the adventure itself goes all over the place: backwards, forwards, and sideways, with plenty of unexpected swerves. It’s totally compelling, and its grand ambition works for the most part, but it’s admittedly a lot to take in, and it does hit upon a few confusing plot points (which could have been ironed out had it been a novel). I can’t elaborate without spoilers, but much like the original stories, Cursed Child is a page-turner.
Yet underneath all of the magical bells and whistles and the twists and revelations are the two intertwined pillars supporting the whole thing: characters and themes.
Harry and AlbusHarry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about the relationship between a father and a son: Harry and Albus Severus Potter. It’s a story about legacies and how they define us. About the lingering shadows of the past and their effect on the future. It’s about Harry, the orphan with a traumatic childhood, struggling to raise a troubled child of his own. It’s about Albus, burdened by his father’s legacy that he did not choose—a legacy that includes both triumph and tragedy.
This theme of parenthood spreads across the play, reflected in almost all of the characters, down to the main antagonist. Of these, the second most prominent one is Scorpius Malfoy. Not only must he contend with being the son of Draco Malfoy, who himself was shaped by his relationship with his own father, but also with a rumour about his parentage that haunts him, making Scorpius the bearer of two dark legacies.
Albus and Scorpius are an excellent, well-rounded pair of new leads with a friendship that harkens back to the original trio. Scorpius especially shines, a sweet, caring, and loyal character rife with humour and wit who’s sure to become a new fan favourite.
Much like his son, Draco is one of the most fascinating characters in the play, having experienced so much evolution throughout and since the original stories. Most of the other original characters also return, very much changed but also very much the same. Hermione is even more fierce, intelligent, and passionate than ever. Ron is still loyal and a lovable goofball, but the play reduces him to simple comic relief quite often, which I believe is an unfortunate necessity of the format and story being told.
Harry Potter has always been a flawed hero, and his mistakes as a parent are a major driving factor in Cursed Child. I like that he’s not infallible, and I especially enjoyed seeing that the events of his youth affected the kind of parent he became. The Deathly Hallows epilogue was full of optimism, but there was no way everything had gone so smoothly given what had happened, and I love that the play is an exploration of this idea.
I’m confident Harry Potter and the Cursed Child translates to the stage in a fantastic fashion and makes for an amazing theatrical experience. But this review is of the script: not quite a play, and not quite a novel.
There’s no narration aside from sparse stage direction, which leaves a lot of room for the production to roam free, but also compels the readers to exercise their own imaginations. That’s not to mention the necessary narrative shortcuts taken to get from one scene to the next, letting the readers fill in the blanks. The dialogue is also of a different sort; sometimes more expository, sometimes over the top. There are hints and bits of J. K. Rowling’s snappy wit, but the writing is meant to accommodate the actors’ interpretations as key components necessary to enrich the characters.
Even though the script alone is an incomplete experience, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a compelling read, ambitious enough to play around with the canon, and an overall success thanks to strong characters, whimsical adventure, and emotional, mature themes.

Rating: 4/5 (Great)

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond is an excellent summer blockbuster: a fun adventure that expertly balances exhilarating action with great character dynamics and humour. It continues the rebooted series’ tradition of being dependably great action movies, while bringing the new films closer to the original spirit of the franchise.
Star Trek Beyond is in many ways a reclamation of the spirit Star Trek, which many fans felt the rebooted series (especially Into Darkness) wandered away from in its quest for wider audience appeal. Star Trek Beyond has been accurately described by its cast and crew as feeling like a big-budget, movie-length episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. It is a self-contained adventure set right in the middle of the Enterprise‘s five-year mission in deep space. More importantly, it emphasizes exploration and adventure, the characters and their relationships, and a wide-eyed, unwavering sense of optimism in humanity’s future.
One great example happens early on when the Enterprise arrives at a space station called Yorktown, and it is an absolutely beautiful scene thanks to the incredible production design, stellar camera work, and sublime music by the legendary Michael Giacchino. For the first time in the rebooted series, we get a sequence that exemplifies the kind of science fiction Star Trek is supposed to be: one that presents an optimistic view of the future, and a world that makes the audience say, "I want to live there."
JaylahAnother example is the villain. I can’t get into his motivation without hitting on spoilers, but thematically speaking, the film’s conflict reaffirms the idealistic future of Star Trek. A future based not on war and conflict, but on peace, scientific exploration, and unity.
It is an important message especially in today’s political climate where xenophobia and warmongering reign supreme (though the movie didn’t push it hard enough to count as a legitimate political message). But it also works in a meta sense, successfully addressing the criticisms that the reboot has received.
And yet Star Trek Beyond does not at all renounce the rebooted series’ approach—it remains firmly entrenched in the post-reboot mentality of delivering adrenaline-pumping action set amidst a tight, briskly paced narrative. This is great, because I personally adore the 2009 film and believe it did nothing but good for Star Trek, breathing new life into the franchise with a much-needed burst of freshness.
If anything, Star Trek Beyond proves that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It finds the right balance between the two camps of Star Trek fans, and proves that you can make a "traditional" Star Trek movie without eschewing mainstream appeal, and vice versa.
Justin Lin, the director who reinvigorated the Fast and Furious franchise, proves to be an excellent choice to direct Star Trek Beyond. J.J. Abrams still has the slight edge, But Lin’s undeniable talent for intense, high-octane action makes for several thrilling sequences that keep the film energized.
Connecting the dazzling action set pieces are the character interactions that constitute the meat of the film. The last two movies did a fantastic job exploring the characters of Kirk and Spock and their powerful relationship, and this is again true in Star Trek Beyond, which gives each of them a strong story arc across the film.
This time, though, the rest of the Enterprise crew got a bit more spotlight, reaffirming what a great cast of characters they are individually and as a crew. The film’s structure forces them to be split up into pairs, and the best of those is Spock and Bones, whose amusing back-and-forth is absolutely a highlight of the film. I’m especially happy that Karl Urban got more to do this time around.
Meanwhile, a new face is introduced: Jaylah, who is absolutely the movie’s breakout character. She is paired up with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, who gets to be more than just great comic relief this time, and the two prove to be another successful duo. Jaylah’s success as a lovable character is almost entirely thanks to actress Sofia Boutella, who plays her with a great combination of strength and humour.
The other major new character Krall, the villain played by Idris Elba, who projects an imposing sense of danger to his performance even when his face is hidden behind prosthetics. Earlier I praised his motivations and what they represent thematically, but my biggest problem with Star Trek Beyond is that those motivations aren’t revealed until late in the movie, by which time it’s difficult to explore them properly. The intent was great, but the execution was poor.
In the end, I would say that Beyond is a big improvement over Into Darkness, if not quite as stellar as the 2009 Star Trek (which, to be fair, I consider a near-perfect summer movie). Star Trek Beyond is a major step in the right direction for the franchise, and an excellent blockbuster in its own right.

Rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent)

Review: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters is a hilarious and highly entertaining movie, with a talented cast, great chemistry and charm, clever social commentary, and no shortage of kickass ghostbusting.
The film’s biggest success, much like the original’s, is the cast. By now, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy have become highly dependable comedians, and in Ghostbusters they demonstrate exactly why. As individuals, their delivery is impeccable and their skill top-notch, but as a pair it’s even better. Relative newcomer Leslie Jones steps up and proves herself to be on par with them, giving a lively performance that’s sure to win her some new fans.
But it’s Kate McKinnon who steals the show. Between her work on Saturday Night Live and her instantly captivating appearance in the first cast photo, she was the Ghostbuster I was looking forward to seeing the most, and she more than fulfils that promise. Her character, Jillian Holtzmann, crackles with a delightful and magnetic energy. Whether she is in the center of the frame, off to the side, or blurred away in the background, she commands the audience’s attention, thanks to her attitude and her quirks and mannerisms. She even gets a sequence in the climax that is sure to have audiences cheering.
KevinSecond to McKinnon is Chris Hemsworth, who gives my favourite of his performances ever. Hemsworth’s character, Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ handsome but incredibly dumb receptionist, is a genius creation both in concept and execution. Writer and director Paul Feig frequently explores gender-related tropes in his movies, and Kevin is just that: a clever, gender-swapped subversion of the attractive but unintelligent secretary who’s just eye candy for the protagonist. It’s a difficult approach that works incredibly well thanks to Hemsworth’s laid-back, straight-faced delivery of increasingly stupid but hilarious lines.
In fact, Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from its feminism and social commentary, and it’s all the better for it. Kevin is just the first example. It can be seen in the protagonists themselves, women in scientific fields, underappreciated and undermined by everyone from authority figures to online commenters brushing their work away as a hoax ("fake geek girl", anyone?). It can be seen in the way Ghostbusters was prescient enough to address the sexist criticisms leveled against it even though it was written before many of those criticisms were brought up.
It can also be seen in the movie’s antagonist. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an over-the-top moustache-twirling villain. But his melodramatic rants will sound immediately and eerily familiar to those who have been on any corner of the Internet populated by groups of similar men. Those privileged, too-smart-for-society MRA types—exactly the kind of person who’d rant about an all-female Ghostbusters movie. Just like Feig did with Jason Statham’s character in Spy, he and fellow writer Katie Dippold use characters like this film’s villain to deliver commentary on different types toxic masculinity.
Of course, it’s not a perfect movie by any means. The plot is fairly standard, and it gets pretty generic by the third act, even if that is to be expected for a summer movie of its type. And it’s riddled with references and homages to the original Ghostbusters, which are great to cheer for on opening night, yet most of them stand out and interrupt the movie’s flow. If Ghostbusters gets a sequel, which I hope it does, I look forward to it being free of the need to pay this much respect to the original.
Despite that, and even aside from its cleverness, Ghostbusters is just a great time at the movies. The laughs and the action are enough to keep audience members entertained throughout. And as a Ghostbusters fan since I saw one of the cartoons as a kid, this movie had all the right ingredients, between the funny cast, the gadgets, the various really cool designs of the ghosts themselves, and the sight of the team kicking ghost butt.

Rating: 4/5 (Great)

TV Review: Game of Thrones – “The Winds of Winter”

The Winds of Winter
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Game of Thrones reviews here.
“The Winds of Winter” was a fantastic episode that ended Game of Thrones‘s sixth season on a high note. A very eventful, murderous, emotional, violent, and incredibly satisfying high note. Is it too early to call it the best episode of the entire series? Perhaps. But it is, at the very least, a definite contender.
“The Winds of Winter” opened with a masterful 15 minutes, a haunting sequence set to some of Ramin Djawadi’s finest work as the series’ composer. The lighting, editing, framing, and cinematography were pitch-perfect, a sense of foreboding present from the very first frame. The tension only rose as the true horror of Cersei’s plan was gradually and meticulously revealed, until it literally exploded in a green inferno, the wildfire destroying the Great Sept of Baelor and killing everyone inside.
And I mean everyone. The High Sparrow and the Faith Militant, including Lancel, died. Margaery, Loras, and Mace Tyrell died. Kevan Lannister died. Even Maester Pycelle was brutally murdered by Qyburn’s little “birds”. And to cap it off, in another instance of excellent camera work, poor Tommen flung himself from a window, plummeting to his death.
Daenerys and TyrionThis left a void in the throne room, one that Cersei quickly filled, beating Daenerys to the punch and becoming the queen. Even the death of her son turned into an opportunity to seize power. One has to wonder what Jaime, who only recently professed his eternal devotion to Cersei, thinks about her essentially becoming the Mad Queen.
The conflict in King’s Landing had always been plagued with leisurely pacing and a lack of audience investment. But “The Winds of Winter” made the slow burn worth it, delivering game-changing events with far-reaching consequences well beyond the immediate scope of the storyline itself.
One such consequence was Olenna Tyrell, robbed of so many of her House in one swift stroke, seeking an alliance with other Lannister enemies in Dorne. Before this episode, if you had told me that I would be cheering for something taking place in Dorne, I would have laughed. Yet Game of Thrones miraculously made Ellaria and the Sand Snakes relevant, if not yet interesting, by pairing them with other, far more enjoyable characters in Olenna and Varys, who made a surprise appearance and recruited Ellaria and Olenna to Daenerys’s cause.
And with alliances forged and a fleet ready, Daenerys was finally ready to set sail to Westeros. After saying goodbye to Daario, she shared a very touching scene with Tyrion in which she declared him the Hand of the Queen, after which the cynic-turned-believer knelt before her. And they were off, ending the episode with a beautiful sequence depicting her large fleet setting sail, flanked by the three dragons. Things will definitely get more exciting on that front next year.
The opening sequence may have been Game of Thrones‘s biggest massacre of named characters yet, but “The Winds of Winter” was only just getting started. Arya made a surprise return to action in the fist-pump moment of the week, as she used the skills of the Faceless Men to kill Walder Frey—after feeding him his children in a pie, no less. It was a great and truly satisfying moment; not only was it revenge for the Red Wedding, but it was also a return to form for Arya that finally made use of her time in Braavos. In fact, I wouldn’t mind it if next season featured Arya going through her list like the Terminator going through Sarah Connors in a phone book. It might make the Braavos storyline actually worthwhile, even if it still did take too long to end.
Tower of JoyMeanwhile, “The Winds of Winter” explored the fallout of the Battle of the Bastards. The tension between Sansa and Jon seems to have dissipated, but that might only be on the surface. Sansa has more of Littlefinger’s qualities than she would care to admit, and as rousing as the scene where Jon was declared the King in the North was (thanks to the always-fierce Lyanna Mormont), there was a hint of displeasure on Sansa’s face. Considering she was overlooked despite being responsible for the victory, it’s understandable.
Jon rallying the Northern Houses was far from the most interesting thing about him this week, though. Bran made one final appearance this season to continue his Tower of Joy vision, and a historic scene was finally played out as Jon was revealed to not be the son of Ned Stark, but Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. A beautiful and powerful reveal years if not decades in the making.
Other tidbits this week included an intense confrontation between Davos and Melisandre over Shireen’s death that featured superb acting by both, especially an emotional Liam Cunningham. Jon made the wise choice in sending Melisandre away without killing her, and I’m interested in finding out with whom she crosses paths next. And Sam and Gilly finally arrived at the Citadel in Oldtown, giving us our first look at the beautiful, long-hyped library.
Throughout this season I’ve talked about setups and payoffs, and it’s only fitting that “The Winds of Winter” was the biggest example of that in the show’s history, paying off literal years’ worth of buildup. Arya got retribution for the Red Wedding. Cersei eliminated all of her enemies, from the small council to the High Sparrow to Margaery and the Tyrells, the main reason she pursued the High Sparrow to begin with. The Mad King’s decades-old wildfire plan was used. Sam arrived at Oldtown. Jon Snow’s parentage was revealed. Daenerys finally headed to Westeros. And after years of being told it was coming, winter has finally arrived.

Rating: 5/5 (Perfect)

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