Sunday, May 28, 2017

Suicide Squad (2016) *

Margot Robbie is distractingly pretty, which is a good thing for “Suicide Squad.” She helps to distract, just a little, from the lame plot, brain-dead dialogue, and otherwise crappy acting in this rush-job film about D-list comic book anti-heroes.

Robbie plays Harley Quinn, the mentally ill former psychiatrist who is the Joker's gangster moll. She gets recruited, along with a handful of other bad guys, to form a super-squad, a-la “The Dirty Dozen.” Other members of the team include Deadshot (a sharpshooting assassin played by Will Smith), Killer Croc, Diablo, and the Enchantress (an ancient witch-spirit inhabiting the body of model Cara Delevingne). This takes place after the death of Superman, and the U.S. government is nervous about not having their super-soldier anymore. Nervous enough to sign off on Agent Amanda Waller's (Viola Davis) plan to reform this group of super-villains and get them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

Before Waller can even assemble the team and put them to work against an outside threat, one of their own provides a crisis. The Enchantress breaks free of Waller's tenuous control and sets to work destroying Midway City. Rather than giving Waller and the government second thoughts about Suicide Squad, this disaster provides the impetus for Waller to spring her other pet villains from prison and send them on their first assignment. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Joker (Jared Leto) is working to get his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, back.

I find it remarkable that “Suicide Squad” is written and directed by David Ayer. Ayer wrote the screenplay for 2001's “Training Day,” which is an excellent, tightly-plotted film. “Suicide Squad” is a complete mess. The film rushes through the origin stories for these villains, then becomes completely incoherent about basic things like the passage of time, the order of events, and basic character motivations. When some character development is belatedly attempted, it fizzles. Most of the actors, including Jared Leto, wander through the film like they are on sedatives. Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an honest attempt to give some life to their characters, but the script gives them little to work with, and Robbie's on-again-off-again Jersey accent is almost as distracting as her beauty.

To the extent that you can extract any theme from this incoherent plot, it is that the whole idea behind the film is ill-advised. Agent Waller should have known she wouldn't be able to maintain control of the Enchantress, who can travel through space and time in an instant. Unsurprisingly, she has minimal control over the other squad psychopaths as well. Suicide Squad is a bad idea for fighting evil, just as watching “Suicide Squad” is a bad idea for being entertained.

1 star out of 5

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Handmaiden (2016) ****

Park Chan-wook's “The Handmaiden” represents a Korean re-telling of Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith,” an erotic, lesbian tale of crime and romance. Full of intrigue and surprisingly graphic sex scenes, the film represents that rare genre: a truly erotic movie that actually has a good story.

Tae-ri Kim plays Sook-Hee, a Korean pickpocket who gets a chance to move up in the world of crime. Con-artist Count Fujiwara recruits her to become a handmaiden to the rich, beautiful Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The plan is for Sook-Hee to spy on Hideko and help the fake Count seduce her. He will marry her for her fortune, then have her placed in an insane asylum. Sook-Hee is happy to go along for a share of the spoils, and Hideko should be easy enough to lure away from her cruel uncle, who makes her read rare, erotic books out loud to a kinky cadre of wealthy book collectors. Complications arise, however, when Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love.

Sarah Waters is known for her erotic stories about women, such as “Tipping the Velvet.” In “The Handmaiden,” she tells a tale of two women who decide to do an end-run around a system where they are at the mercy of cruel men. The Count uses Sook-Hee to try to cheat Hideko out of her fortune and her freedom. Hideko's Uncle uses her to titillate the old men who bid on his books. These two women look around and see a world of men, who will use them up, then toss them away. So they turn to each other.

“The Handmaiden” is listed as “Unrated” in the U.S., and it has several beautiful, intense sex scenes that would probably earn it an NC-17 rating. The film deserves more, however, than to be known only for its titillation factor. This is a beautifully filmed, beautifully acted grifter's tale, full of intrigue and double-crosses that will keep surprising you all the way to the satisfying end.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Coraline (2009) *****

“Coraline” is, to put it bluntly, one of the best animated movies, ever. Child or adult, you owe it to yourself to check out this gem. Based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, it is the story of a tween girl whose family moves to a big, old house. The place is so large that she and her parents only rent one floor. The other levels are occupied by a bizarre menagerie of characters, including a pair of old Vaudeville performers and a gymnast who trains mice. Then there are a stray cat and Wybie, an annoying boy who rides a motorbike.

Exploring her new home, Coraline finds a tiny door. When she finally gets it open, she is disappointed to find nothing but bricks behind it. Late one night, though, Coraline revisits the door, finding that it opens to a tunnel. On the other side she finds an alternate reality, one where her mother and father are much more entertaining and obliging, where everything is more enchanting. She soon discovers a dark side to this dreamworld, however, and it takes all of her wits to save herself, her real parents, and her real life.

“Coraline” works as both a straight, fantasy-horror story and as a metaphor for coming-of-age. Coraline's boredom and her dissatisfaction with her busy parents will be familiar to any tween or teen. The dark lure of a more exciting world without parents is a potent theme for a horror story aimed at a tween audience, but “Coraline” can be enjoyed by all ages. It is as close to a perfect movie as you will find.

It should come as no surprise that “Coraline” is so delightful. Besides originating with author Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman”, “American Gods”), the film is directed by Henry Selick, who is best known for the stunning “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Like “Nightmare,” “Coraline” is filmed using stop-motion animation. I don't want to be one of these crusty, old Luddites carrying on about how the old animation styles are better than the new CGI stuff. There are some outstanding CGI-animated films out there, including the “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” films. Nonetheless, there is something lush about the imagery in “Coraline.”

Beautiful animation, a rich story, and inspired voice acting from the likes of Dakota Fanning, Terry Hatcher, and Keith David (stealing every scene as The Cat). What's not to love?! Along with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline” stands as one of the great animated films.

5 stars out of 5