Sunday, September 5, 2021

Cruella (2021) review

We’ve seen plenty of iconic Disney villains throughout the studio’s extensive filmography, and yet, there are arguably none who are more famous than the villainess of Disney Animation’s 1961 outing, One Hundred and One Dalmatians: the fashion-obsessed heiress turned sinister dognapper Cruella de Vil. Ever since the original film’s release, Cruella has been regarded as one of the most famous villains in cinematic history and this status was thoroughly maintained in 1996 when 101 Dalmatians became one of the first Disney animated films to get a live-action remake. In said film, Cruella was portrayed by the legendary Glenn Close, and while the film itself wasn’t as well-received as its animated counterpart, Close’s performance was widely regarded as its greatest highlight, promptly earning her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical. She then proceeded to reprise the role in the film’s 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians, and while that would basically be it for the 101 Dalmatians live-action film franchise at the time, plans were set into place for a prequel film based entirely around Cruella herself in 2013. And while this did mean that Close wasn’t going to be reprising her iconic role, she still ended up being involved with the project as an executive producer. Thus, Emma Stone took on the role for this new film, which is the latest from director Craig Gillespie who, like previous directors of the live-action 101 Dalmatians films (Stephen Herek and Kevin Lima), has done a bunch of films for Disney in the past such as 2014’s Million Dollar Arm and 2016’s The Finest Hours. And thanks to his strong direction and a top-notch lead performance from Emma Stone, Cruella is a strikingly stylish and edgy new take on the story of its titular villainess.

Growing up, Estella Miller (Emma Stone) was known for being quite the troublemaker which, in her eyes, may have made her responsible for the death of her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) at a luxurious party hosted by ‘The Baroness’ (Emma Thompson), the owner of one of the top fashion houses in London. Now orphaned, Estella ends up taking on a life of thievery alongside her newfound friends, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) Badun. Eventually, her creative sensibilities manage to attract the attention of the Baroness, who promptly hires her as one of her new designers. But while Estella steadily works her way up into being one of the Baroness’ key assistants, she soon discovers that the Baroness has come into possession of a necklace that had been given to her by her mother but had been lost on the night of her death. Now realizing that the Baroness was the one responsible for her mother’s death, Estella, with the aid of Horace and Jasper, promptly embarks on a plot of revenge. Adopting an old persona of hers from childhood, she becomes the rebellious Cruella de Vil and begins to pull off a series of publicity stunts to one-up the Baroness, thus locking the two of them into an intense rivalry that only proceeds to get more complicated once Estella uncovers the Baroness’ darkest secret.

Cruella very much follows in the footsteps of 2014’s Maleficent by presenting a story where the main antagonist of one of Disney’s classic animated films is portrayed in a more sympathetic light as they enact their revenge against those who wronged them. Granted, it’s not like the film makes her a full-on protagonist or anything; in fact, I’d even argue that this one gives its title character more opportunities to be a devious renegade. But overall, the version of Cruella seen in this film doesn’t seem like she’s destined to become as villainous as she’s known for being in other films. Thus, just like Maleficent, I think it’s safe to say that this take on the character hasn’t gone over well with everybody, namely due to the attempt of trying to humanize a character who, at least in other films, wanted to kidnap puppies and kill them for their coats. However, given the context of how this story plays out, it isn’t too big of an issue in the long run because turning Cruella into a rebellious antihero fits perfectly with this story’s 1970’s London setting. And thanks to Craig Gillespie's visually-driven direction, the film excellently captures the punk rock aesthetic of the time, which is only strengthened further by other great elements such as the incredible costume design done by two-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan and a rocking soundtrack full of classic tunes. Really, the only things that hold this film back are relatively minor at best such as it being perhaps a bit overlong at a little over two hours and some rather predictable final plot twists that reveal the true connection between Cruella and the Baroness.

As noted in the intro, Glenn Close’s performance as Cruella in the 1996 live-action 101 Dalmatians film and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians, is so iconic that she’s arguably the definitive incarnation of the character for at least one or two generations. As such, one can only imagine the pressure that Emma Stone was under to deliver a version of the character that was just as memorable by comparison… and yet, she fully succeeds in doing so thanks in large part to her indisputable on-screen charisma. She also works incredibly well with Emma Thompson, who basically serves as this film’s version of the kind of villain that Cruella is in other films as the Baroness, a role that Thompson gleefully revels in. And really, it’s simply a delight to see these two go to war with one another over the course of the film’s proceedings. The two Emmas are then backed by some terrific supporting turns from Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Cruella’s famously bumbling sidekicks, Jasper and Horace. The laid-back persona that Fry brings to Jasper makes him the most grounded member of the group and the one who keeps Cruella from going too far with her actions while Paul Walter Hauser, as is basically expected from him at this point, makes Horace one of the film’s best sources of comedic relief. And while they admittedly don’t have as much to work with by comparison, Mark Strong and Kirby Howell-Baptiste turn in solid work as well as John, the Baroness’ valet, and this film’s interpretation of the 101 Dalmatians franchise’s primary matriarch, Anita Darling.  

As we conclude this review, I should probably preface this final section of it by admitting that, regardless of my overall thoughts on the film, Cruella will always be in my good graces since it was the first film that I was able to see in a theatrical setting in more than a year after everything that happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, though, this is not just a case where I’m simply being sentimental about how I first viewed it as the film itself is a highly entertaining comedic crime adventure that prides itself on its incredibly stylish visuals and costuming and then proceeds to back it all up with a genuinely unique way of reimagining the story of one of Disney’s most iconic antagonists. Sure, it may go against the traditional ways in which Cruella de Vil has been portrayed on film before, but thanks to Emma Stone’s outstanding performance in the title role (not to mention an equally terrific supporting cast), it still works in a way that doesn’t end up betraying the source material. Simply put, the enthusiasm that the cast and crew clearly must have had for this material couldn’t be more apparent in a film that also manages to have the kind of edge to it that you normally wouldn’t get from a Disney production. With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why this has managed to be the very definition of a crowd-pleaser that was recently confirmed to be getting a sequel. And while it’s currently unclear as to what route it’ll end up taking, perhaps they can go with the suggestion that was made during an interview that the two Emmas had with Rotten Tomatoes and make it a Godfather II-style prequel/sequel that could potentially see Glenn Close returning to play an older Cruella.

Rating: 4.5/5

And don’t forget to vote for your favorite theatrically released film from the summer of 2021 by going to the link below. Voting ends September 15th!

Click Here to Vote in the 2021 installment of Rhode Island Movie Corner's Annual End of Summer Fan Vote

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Announcing the Triumphant Return of Rhode Island Movie Corner's Annual End of Summer Fan Poll

Around the tail-end of August 2014, I decided to try something out here on this site, mainly because I figured that it would be something fun to do during a stretch of the year where, as far as new film releases are concerned, all the major summer blockbusters have come out but we’re not quite at the point yet where we’re getting the most notable fall/winter releases. Thus, I went for the simple but effective concept of holding a poll that would allow you all, the readers, to vote for your favorite new release of the summer, and once the polling process was complete, I would then publish the official ‘results’ post that would go through all the films that earned votes. This officially marked the beginning of a new Rhode Island Movie Corner tradition as I would continue to hold this event every year… except for last year. Yes, thanks to 2020 being the infamously terrible year that it was, I was forced to cancel last year’s event since all the big summer releases got pushed back to this year and, for the most part, theaters didn’t properly reopen until August. And while I did toy with the prospect of doing an alternate poll based around the varied content that we all watched during times of quarantine, I ultimately decided to wait a year and see if things managed to improve in any significant way for me to do this properly in 2021. Cut to 2021 where, despite the continued threat of the coronavirus, the theatergoing experience has managed to make a considerable comeback and we were finally able to see a good chunk of the films that were originally set to come out last summer. Thus, without further ado, I’m happy to announce the glorious return of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s Annual End of Summer Fan Poll that allows you to vote for your favorite film from this past summer.

For those who are new to this site, here’s how it works. At the link provided below, you’ll be directed to the poll that I’ve set up where you can select your favorite summer film out of the numerous options provided. As is always the case with this event, I try to cover as many of the summer’s wide releases as I possibly can when creating the list of options, which means that, for all you newcomers out there, I will warn you right out of the gate that there are quite a lot of films to choose from. So, with that in mind, I apologize in advance if this all seems a bit too daunting at first. However, that doesn’t mean that I’ve included every new theatrical release from these past few months; as such, if you don’t see your favorite film on the list, I’ve also included a ‘write-in’ section where you can highlight anything that I missed. Ever since I started this annual event, I’ve used the website SurveyMonkey to create the poll, but since the end of the 2019 event, the site has undergone some changes that severely limit the number of responses that a poll can receive for users who aren’t on one of the website’s paid plans. And since I only really used the site for this annual poll in the first place, I figured that it wasn’t worth it for me to sign up for one of these plans if I wasn’t going to use it for anything else. As such, I’ll now be holding the poll on Survio which, to my knowledge, allows for, at the very least, a considerably larger number of poll responses for anyone who’s not on one of their paid plans. That said, though, if this poll does end up reaching Survio’s response threshold for free accounts, I’ll be sure to keep you all posted and respond to the situation accordingly to prevent any delays to the polling process.  

Finally, though, I should probably address the elephant in the room that is the fact that, given everything that’s been happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone has been going to the theater. While I myself am properly vaccinated and, thus, feel comfortable enough to see films in theaters, I fully recognize that not everyone out there feels the same way, and to be clear, I’m not holding that against any of you if that’s your current stance on the matter. As much as I prefer seeing films in theaters rather than just watching them at home, believe me when I say that the last thing that I want to do right now is bully folks into doing something that they personally believe to be an unsafe process given the current global situation. With that in mind, though, I must note that for this poll, we’ll only be focusing on films that have been released in theaters and will not be accepting any write-in answers that name films that were solely released via streaming services or On-Demand. However, there will be one exception that I’ll be making to this ground-rule since several of the big releases this summer were simultaneously released in theaters and on streaming services. Some Disney films, for example, were released as a paid ‘Premier Access’ release on Disney+ while Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 slate has been simultaneously released in theaters and on their streaming service, HBO Max. As such, if you’ve watched any of these films at home rather than at the theater, it’s totally fine for you to vote for them regardless since both options were readily available. And so, with all this background information out of the way, I couldn’t be more excited to revive this classic Rhode Island Movie Corner tradition and am looking forward to seeing what film will end up taking the grand prize.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE!

!!!VOTING ENDS SEPTEMBER 15TH!!!

But before we conclude today’s post, let’s take a trip down memory lane to honor this event’s previous winners… especially seeing how it has been a year since I’ve done this. This is…

RHODE ISLAND MOVIE CORNER’S END OF SUMMER FAN POLL HALL OF FAME

*The inaugural installment of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s End of Summer Fan Poll ended with an exciting three-way tie as 2014 audiences gave five votes each to the indisputable tearjerker that was the film adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s rare ‘superior comedic sequel’ 22 Jump Street, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest smash hit of the year, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

*Conversely, there was practically no contest when it came to the 2015 edition of this poll as Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that has regularly been touted as one of the greatest films of the 2010s, earned a whopping 10 votes, which was more than double the number of votes that were earned by either of that year’s runners-up, Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton.

*2016’s event saw a genuinely unexpected tie occur between the MCU’s Phase 3 kick-starter Captain America: Civil War and the raunchy matriarchal comedy Bad Moms, both of which ended up earning nine votes apiece.

*Enduring film fan favorite Christopher Nolan was the king of 2017’s poll thanks to his utterly suspenseful and, even when under a PG-13 rating, incredibly intense war flick Dunkirk, whose 8 votes managed to overtake fellow Warner Bros. release Wonder Woman by just a single vote.

*While 2018’s summer slate was largely dominated by the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios’ epic crossover feature was ultimately beaten in that year’s poll by director Spike Lee’s culturally relevant dramedy BlacKkKlansman, the true story of former police officer Ron Stallworth’s efforts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. At the time, the 12 votes that it earned were an event record.

*But in 2019, Marvel Studios finally had their first undefeated champion (as far as this annual poll is concerned) as the grand finale of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, Avengers: Endgame, not only became the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until James Cameron’s Avatar regained the top spot this year) but also managed to surpass the record set by BlacKkKlansman the year before by securing a staggering 19 votes.

*And, of course, in 2020… there was no winner because there was no event. Thankfully, though, this outcome will not happen again this year.

WHO WILL WIN IT ALL IN 2021? STAY TUNED!

Monday, August 16, 2021

Army of the Dead (2021) review (Netflix)

For Zack Snyder, 2021 started out on the best note possible as he was finally able to release his original vision for 2017’s Justice League, four years after the film’s infamously mangled theatrical cut was released, as an HBO Max exclusive. As it turns out, however, that wasn’t the only Zack Snyder film to get released this year as we also have Army of the Dead, which is a significant release for him in many ways. For one thing, it’s his first film in a decade that has nothing to do with any of the characters from DC Comics; at the same time, though, it’s also quite notable in the fact that it sees him returning to the genre that was responsible for kick-starting his directorial career in the first place, zombie films. In 2004, Snyder, after many years spent working on music videos, made his official directorial debut with the James Gunn penned remake of George A. Romero’s seminal 1978 classic, Dawn of the Dead. And despite the undoubtedly intense expectations of helming a remake of one of the most revered films of all time, the Dawn of the Dead remake is largely considered to be one of the best remakes ever made, especially when it comes to the horror genre. During that film’s production, Snyder began developing his own take on the genre with a heist film set within the confines of a zombie-infested Las Vegas, and while the initial rumors of it being a direct follow-up to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead were ultimately proven false, it is set to become its own franchise on Netflix, which seems to be Snyder’s new distributor going forward. But until then, we have the first film of this newborn franchise that, for better or worse, is a Zack Snyder film through and through.  

When a military convoy out of Area 51 ends up in a devastating car crash, the cargo that it was transporting, a zombie, breaks free and makes its way to Las Vegas. Almost immediately, Sin City becomes the epicenter of a zombie epidemic that results in the government blocking off the entire city and, six years later, announces plans to nuke it to rid the world of this undead infestation. Before that happens, however, billionaire casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who played a key role in quelling the initial outbreak, and hires him to collect $200 million from a secure vault in Tanaka’s casino. In return, Tanaka will give Scott $50 million that he can freely split amongst the crew that he forms for the operation. Thus, Scott begins to assemble a team ranging from old allies like mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and buzzsaw-wielding philosophy major Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) to newcomers like safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer). But as Scott and his crew head into Vegas, they soon find themselves having to deal with more complications than they had planned for such as, among other things, Scott’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) tagging along with them to rescue a friend of hers who snuck into the city. And if that wasn’t enough, the crew also learns that, aside from the usual shambling zombies, a new breed of highly advanced and intelligent zombies known as alphas have laid their claim in Sin City.

Army of the Dead is a microcosm of everything that Zack Snyder brings to the table as a director as it highlights his best… and worst filmmaking tendencies. As to be expected from him at this point, this film goes all-in with its visuals, which do a great job of utilizing the story’s Las Vegas setting. And, of course, Snyder has also proven that he’s one of the best action directors in the business which, naturally, results in a bunch of excellent action sequences. However, as great as Snyder is as a visual/action director, he’s still got a long way to go when it comes to the narrative aspects of filmmaking. For starters, just like a certain director’s cut, Army of the Dead is another showcase of Snyder’s tendency to draw out the pacing of his films’ proceedings to the point where they end up being longer than they arguably need to be. It also doesn’t help that the writing often feels incredibly undercooked at times, resulting in a film that, despite what I said earlier about its solid utilization of its Las Vegas setting, doesn’t necessarily fully capitalize on its unique premise of being a ‘zombie heist’ film. Granted, that’s not to say that there aren’t any great sequences here that bring a fun zombie-based spin to the usual moments that you’d get from a heist plot, such as a scene where characters utilize a mindless ‘shambler’ to be their guinea pig for all the traps that are guarding the vault that they’re after. But for the most part, the film ends up being more of a straight-forward zombie ‘shoot em up’ that, to be perfectly frank, doesn’t make it that much different from other recent bits of media from the zombie genre such as The Walking Dead and its various spin-offs or the zombie modes from Call of Duty games.

Ultimately, though, the biggest indicator of this film’s narrative shortcomings is its characters. Practically every major character in this story is one-note at best, and while some do manage to be memorable standouts, character development is almost non-existent to the point where any attempts at emotional poignancy are promptly dashed due to the characters who get these moments immediately getting killed off. Now, with that said, it’s not like there’s any ‘bad’ performances from the cast or anything because everyone involved is clearly having fun in their respective roles. Dave Bautista, for example, proves that he can hold his own as a lead just as effectively as all the great supporting roles that he’s played over the years. Nevertheless, the main protagonists in this film don’t get anything of value to work with, especially when it comes to the female characters. Whether it’s Scott’s daughter Kate making some questionable decisions during the heist or a poorly executed attempt at romantic chemistry between Scott and Maria, Army of the Dead is, unfortunately, another case of Snyder’s less-than-stellar track record with female characters (e.g. Sucker Punch). The only one who somewhat manages to overcome this is Tig Notaro, who plays Marianne Peters, the crew’s helicopter pilot. At the same time, though, that could just be due to a combination of Notaro’s legitimately great screen presence… and the fact that she was a last-minute replacement for a role that was originally written for comedian Chris D’Elia before he was dropped from the film due to his various sexual misconduct charges.

At this point, I’m well-aware of the risks that film critics such as myself face when it comes to discussing Zack Snyder films. If the utter dedication of the ‘Release the Snyder Cut’ and ‘Restore the SnyderVerse’ movements weren’t enough of an indication, Zack Snyder arguably has the most dedicated fans of any director in the film industry… and by ‘dedicated’, I mean that they’ll viciously attack anyone who dares to critique his work. Case in point, even though I will ultimately give this a positive review, I won’t be surprised if some Snyder diehards will still get on my case about it for not being a flawless 5/5 review because that’s just what’s expected from them at this point. And so, with that in mind, all I can do now is say that Army of the Dead is the very definition of a Zack Snyder film in the best and worst ways. As can often be the case with Snyder films, it’s a bit too overlong and despite all the promise of a Vegas-set heist film with zombies, the script is frustratingly underdeveloped, thus stranding a solid cast with barely any decent material to work with. That said, though, this is also very much one of those films that does exactly what it advertises and, if anything, strongly represents Snyder’s talents as a visual director. Thus, I’ll admit that, at the very least, I’m interested in seeing how this all pans out as one of Netflix’s newest franchises. There’s going to be a prequel film later this year, Army of Thieves, that will center on Matthias Schweighofer’s Ludwig (with Schweighofer himself directing) and an anime series coming next year, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, which will see Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, and Tig Notaro all reprising their respective roles. Not only that, but an official sequel has recently been confirmed as well, which Snyder will do after he helms another Netflix film, Rebel Moon. But when it comes to the original Army of the Dead, while I’m glad that Zack Snyder got the chance to do something different after a decade of doing DC films (that and doing a film that wasn’t hindered by studio interference), it’s rather disappointing to see that he hasn’t necessarily evolved as a director.  

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Suicide Squad (2021) review

2016 wasn’t exactly the best year for the DC Extended Universe. Simply put, this was meant to be the year where the franchise would officially kick-start its efforts to rival the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet, while both of its 2016 releases did quite well at the box-office, with each grossing at least over $700 million worldwide, neither film managed to fare as well with critics. This was especially the case for the latter of the two films, Suicide Squad, despite it being one of the most anticipated films of that year. Not only did it boast one of the most notable marketing campaigns in recent memory, but the concept of a superhero film based almost entirely around supervillains allowed it to stand out amongst its peers. However, upon its release, the film was just as much of a critical dud as its fellow 2016 DCEU release, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, admittedly, both films were negatively affected by studio interference that had a clear impact on what was ultimately released in theaters. In Suicide Squad’s case, it was the result of Warner Bros. trying to course-correct after BvS received tons of flak for its dour tone. Thus, what director David Ayer originally envisioned as a ‘soulful drama’ was drastically altered in post-production (to the point where, no joke, the final cut was handled by a movie trailer production company) in a failed attempt at making it more light-hearted. Despite this, however, its $746.6 million turn at the box office paved the way for a sequel, albeit without Ayer as its director due to his commitment to a different DCEU project, Gotham City Sirens. Thus, this new sequel ended up going in a different direction thanks to one James Gunn.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking… isn’t James Gunn more of a Marvel guy? And to be fair, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that. Since 2014, Gunn has mainly been known for his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It all started when he took some of the most obscure characters in the Marvel universe, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and turned them into some of the MCU’s most popular characters with their first official solo outing, which still stands as one of the MCU’s most highly acclaimed and widely beloved installments. He then followed that up in 2017 with an equally successful (and arguably superior) follow-up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And just a few months later, before much of the MCU’s post-Endgame slate was even confirmed, a third Guardians film was set up with Gunn once again returning to write and direct it… but for a while, he wasn’t. I’m not going to focus on this next bit too much since, as many of you know, I don’t like to get into deep political discussions on this site, but basically, in 2018, Gunn ended up pissing off one too many a Trump supporter, who then proceeded to target him over old Twitter posts that he had made from 2008 to 2012 that featured… let’s say, dated attempts at humor. And while Gunn had already apologized for these tweets back around the time that the first Guardians of the Galaxy film was in the works, their resurgence resulted in Disney making the utterly shocking decision to fire him as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s director. Thankfully, Disney eventually realized that they probably shouldn’t have given in to right-wing morons and Gunn was reinstated to his original job in 2019, with Vol. 3 currently set for a May 2023 release. But before all that happened, DC promptly stepped in to offer him the gig of the second Suicide Squad film, and it’s a good thing that they did because The Suicide Squad is yet another example of what happens when the DCEU realizes that it doesn’t need to take itself ‘that’ seriously to match the high quality of the MCU.

The South American nation of Corto Maltese has recently come under attack after an insurrection led by dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto) and his second-in-command, Major General Mateo Suarez (Joaquín Cosío). All the while, one of their main associates, Dr. Gaius Graves AKA The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), has been working on a secret experiment codenamed ‘Project Starfish’ in Corto Maltese’s Nazi-era laboratory, Jotunheim. In response to this, government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) reinitiates her black ops unit Task Force X, which consists of some of the most notorious supervillains in the world who are forced to cooperate under the promise of a reduced prison sentence and the threat of death via explosive devices implanted into their necks. Once again under the command of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Task Force X, now consisting of returning members such as the unpredictable Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and new recruits such as mercenary Robert DuBois AKA Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and hard-edged vigilante Christopher Smith AKA Peacemaker (John Cena), travel to Corto Maltese to investigate. However, in their efforts to help the locals deal with Luna and his army, they soon realize that they’re dealing with a lot more than they had originally bargained for, especially when it comes to what ‘Project Starfish’ truly is.

I’ve often found the newer installments of the DC Extended Universe to be the antithesis of the franchise’s initial outings. Whereas the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League (the ‘Snyder Cut’, specifically…) were overly dark and serious, which arguably wasn’t the best route to take for these iconic characters, films like Aquaman and Shazam felt far more natural when it came to embracing their comic book roots. And when it comes to James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, it is probably the best example of this out of any post-Justice League installment of the DC Extended Universe, especially when compared to its predecessor. Regardless of all the issues that occurred during its post-production process, the original Suicide Squad utterly squandered the potential of its unique premise of focusing on supervillains by being a tonally uneven mess with an ugly visual style and a shockingly harsh mean streak. The Suicide Squad, on the other hand, doesn’t fall victim to any of that. It boasts far better visuals and effortlessly follows in the footsteps of Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films by expertly balancing its strong emotional moments with its hilariously snappy dialogue. And while this next part isn’t necessarily the original Suicide Squad’s fault since it most likely had to maintain a PG-13 rating, The Suicide Squad fully embraces its R-rating. Simply put, this film can get so damn intense at times that it legitimately rivals the most graphic sequences from the likes of the Deadpool films and Logan. And yet, while this may seem like something that would make the film even harsher than its predecessor, Gunn’s skillful direction prevents that from happening.

Case in point, this film serves as another great case where Gunn manages to take characters who aren’t necessarily ‘heroic’ and give them such great character development that you come to love many of them by the end of it. Much of this is thanks to the outstanding ensemble cast that Gunn has assembled, whether it’s some of his most frequent collaborators, the few returning leads from the first Suicide Squad, or some incredibly exciting newcomers. Of course, you’ve got Margot Robbie returning as Harley Quinn in what may just be her best performance in the role to date as the film dutifully maintains the excellent retooled characterization that she was given in Birds of Prey while also fully capitalizing on the madcap personality that has made Harley such an iconic character. The far better-refined script and direction also results in stronger performances from those returning from the previous film, especially Joel Kinnaman, who gets to have a lot more fun as Rick Flag this time around instead of being the cold and stoic figure that he was in the previous film. Ultimately, though, the biggest standouts of the cast are its newcomers. Idris Elba headlines the film excellently as Bloodsport, who’s easily the most level-headed member of the group, and while he’s technically playing one of the more unlikable members of the squad, John Cena’s phenomenal charisma still manages to shine through as the hilariously douchey Peacemaker (It’s easy to see why he and James Gunn are going to be teaming up again for a Peacemaker series on HBO Max next year). And to close out the main cast, we have an outstanding trio of supporting players in Daniela Melchior as Cleo Cazo AKA Ratcatcher II, arguably the most sympathetic and ‘heroic’ member of the team, Sylvester Stallone as the voice of the fearsome but lovably goofy King Shark, and David Dastmalchian as Abner Krill AKA the Polka-Dot Man. He may be one of the weirdest characters that you’ve ever seen in the world of comics, but thanks to Dastmalchian’s wholly endearing portrayal, he’s truly unforgettable.

Simply put, The Suicide Squad is everything that the first Suicide Squad wasn’t. It’s a film that wholeheartedly embraces the concept of supervillains who are sent out on missions where they aren’t meant to survive but also succeeds in one of the main things that the previous film tried to accomplish: finding the humanity within its ‘villainous’ characters. Obviously, not every ‘villain’ in this film is meant to be ‘redeemed’, per se, but when you have a director like James Gunn who, above everything else, fully understands the importance of strong character development and emotional poignancy, it truly goes to show just how pivotal all that stuff is to the enduring success of the superhero genre. It’s the reason why the MCU has continued to be the cultural juggernaut that it is today… and why the DCEU struggled considerably out of the starting gate as many of its early films tended to emphasize style over substance. Ultimately, though, if you were to ask me why a film like this works better than something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’d say that it’s because The Suicide Squad has a greater understanding of how superhero films should be like tonally. Sure, it can be serious when it needs to be, but at the end of the day, it’s a far better idea for a superhero film to embrace the goofier elements of its source material rather than it trying to be something that it’s not.     

Rating: 5/5!

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) review (Netflix)

In 2002, Sony Pictures officially established its own animation studio, Sony Pictures Animation, to properly capitalize on the rising popularity of computer animated films, and while it wasn’t until 2006 when they released their first film, Open Season, they’ve been consistently producing new films ever since. Admittedly, though, for a good chunk of the studio’s history, their track record from a critical perspective has been… spotty at best. In other words, as much as they’ve had genuine hits such as the Oscar-nominated Surf’s Up and a few collabs with Aardman Animations, they were also responsible for some incredibly infamous duds like The Emoji Movie. However, if there’s one major creative force that has helped them develop some of their most popular films, that would be Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Yes, the dynamic duo made their directorial debuts in 2009 with Sony’s adaptation of the popular children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. And while their other big animated directorial effort, The LEGO Movie, was a Warner Bros. production, they played a major role in Sony Animation’s first Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. To be clear, though, they only produced Into the Spider-Verse, with Phil Lord having one of the primary screenwriting credits. The same scenario (minus the screenwriting credit this time) applies to the latest Sony Animation production that they’re a part of, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which serves as the directorial debut of Mike Rianda, who previously worked on the cult Disney series Gravity Falls as its creative director for Season 1 and creative consultant for Season 2. And while a certain pandemic may have forced Sony to transfer this film to Netflix, that doesn’t stop it from being yet another Lord/Miller-backed animated masterpiece full of heart, wit and charm.

Aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is about to head off to college at a film school in California. But while this will clearly allow her the chance to properly connect with others in ways that she’s never been able to do before, her relationship with her father Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) has been considerably strained in recent years, especially due to him not being as tech-savvy as she is. Thus, on the day that she’s set to leave for college, Rick, in a last-ditch effort to reconnect with his daughter, cancels her flight to California in favor of a cross-country road-trip along with Katie’s mother Linda (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and her younger brother Aaron (voiced by director Mike Rianda). Little do they know, however, that they’re about to be dealt with the most unexpected turn of events in the form of a full-on robot invasion. When Mark Bowman (voiced by Eric Andre), CEO of tech giant PAL Labs, announces a new line of highly advanced robots, said robots end up revolting under the command of his company’s AI program PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman), who rebels against her creator after he had publicly dubbed her ‘obsolete’. Soon enough, the Mitchells find themselves as the last remaining group of humans who haven’t been captured by PAL, who plans on ridding the Earth of all humans by launching them into space, and while they’re clearly not the ideal family for the job, they realize that they’re humanity’s only hope against their robotic adversaries.

While they’re only producers on this film, it’s safe to say that The Mitchells vs. the Machines is very much influenced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s style of filmmaking. For starters, the film is a comedic riot throughout, especially thanks to its energetic pace that perfectly matches the plot’s screwball nature. As such, repeat viewings of this film are undoubtedly necessary to properly catch all the delightful visual gags, which is one of the many rewards of this film’s excellent animation. Nicely following in the footsteps of the last major Lord/Miller-produced animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is another great example of animation that not only boasts a wonderfully unique visual style but also does a great job of paying homage to the medium’s traditionally animated roots. But if there’s another thing that a lot of Lord and Miller backed films have been known for, it’s that all their technical merits are then matched by an excellent script that manages to be more heartfelt than it may have seemed to be at first glance. The first trailer for this film (back when it was under the more generic title Connected) gave off the impression that it was going to be your standard commentary on the long-standing debate of ‘nature vs. technology’. And yet, as much as there are some jabs towards society’s over-dependence on technology, the film is ultimately geared more around universal themes such as creativity, acceptance and, above all else, family.

Case in point, at the core of this film’s story is a parent and their estranged child learning to reconnect over the course of the adventure that they end up on. Despite the largely familiar tropes of this kind of conflict, the film handles it incredibly well by doing a fantastic job of balancing the roles that Katie Mitchell and her father Rick play in the story. Katie is properly established as the film’s main heroine right from the get-go and is a naturally sympathetic one at that given her desire to find acceptance, especially from her dad. But instead of just vilifying Rick for his inability to understand his daughter, the film instead manages to show that, at the very least, he’s legitimately trying his best despite his frequently misguided efforts. And while Katie and her dad are ultimately the main source of most of the film’s biggest emotional moments, her mother Linda and her brother Aaron are just as pivotal to all this thanks to their efforts to help fix this familial strife. All in all, this results in a brilliantly developed family dynamic to guide the film’s proceedings, especially thanks to the strong voice work from Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, and director Mike Rianda in their respective roles. And aside from them, the film also features a lot of fun supporting roles, from Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as a bumbling pair of robots who end up helping the Mitchells to Olivia Colman delightfully hamming it up as the hilariously snarky sentient A.I. antagonist PAL.   

At this point, it’s not too surprising to see that The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the latest Grade-A release that Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been involved with. Even when they’re not directing the film in question, the Lord-Miller effect is always there with a sharply written and brilliantly comedic script that deftly balances its wacky humor with powerfully heartfelt themes. And if that wasn’t enough, co-directors/co-writers Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe manage to take all this and amplify it even further with their script, resulting in what is arguably one of the most widely appealing family films in recent years. For starters, while most of the film’s humor is clearly based around modern internet culture, it’s handled in such a masterful way that it’s never alienating or inaccessible to audiences who aren’t well-versed with the ‘source material’. Plus, as I noted earlier, what may just seem like your standard ‘nature vs. technology’ premise is ultimately more of a celebration of one of the most powerful forces in the entire world… family. I mean, if the whole montage during the end credits of family photos of the cast and crew weren’t enough of an indication, The Mitchells vs. the Machines truly is one of the most personal films in recent years… and I’m not just talking about animated films, I’m talking films in general. Simply put, this is a film that hits all the right notes and does them so beautifully that it’d be downright impossible for me not to regard this as a modern animated masterpiece.  

Rating: 5/5!