SUICIDE SQUAD

There is nothing in Suicide Squad that shows any hope that an auteur filmmaker can do anything distinctive with the current cash cow of the Hollywood machine: the super hero movie. What Christopher Nolan once made his own has devolved into a predictable pastiche whose charms should be wearing thin on audiences. It doesn’t help that the movie is also an example of how bad one of these films can be when it becomes watered down and designed to refrain from shaking up anything in the so-called DC Universe. Suicide Squad, a PG-13 film, was supposed to be DC’s entry to rival Marvel’s R-rated Deadpool. Even though Deadpool had its own problems as a self-aware action movie, it still had focus and a bravado that is nowhere to be found in Suicide Squad.

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Fury posterBefore the very first stark image hits you, Fury director David Ayer unnerves the audience with a simple title card describing the all-out war they are about to witness. The text establishes this is 1945, the end of World War II and U.S. troops are advancing on Berlin. Hitler’s forces are down to recruiting children and old men to fight, but they still have tanks that outgun the comparably puny Shermans of the U.S. army. Then the land fades up from black. It’s all gray and black mud, destroyed war machines and crumpled, muddied bodies. The camera tracks and tracks across this for enough time to set up that this is not a film out to glamorize or romanticize war but to present it as stark and as harrowing as Hollywood can.

For the most part, Ayer succeeds. Forgiving an early sequence that tries too hard to reveal the heart of Brad Pitt’s character Don “Wardadddy” Callier, where he frees a horse from an SS officer, the film’s power lies in its ability to present the unforgiving quality of war. Soldiers are burned alive and torn apart. Faces are removed and bodies burst below tank tracks. These events of horror occur in the film’s first 20 minutes. “This ain’t pretty,” Don tells his new, fresh-faced co-pilot Norman (Logan Lerman). “This is what we do.”

Ayer not only stages vicious battles and skirmishes but presents aftermath as horror: stacks of squishy, gelatinous body parts quivering in rumbling truck beds and even a bit of stiff, pancaked human road kill. He does it all in sharp, steady deep focus. Unlike Spielberg, who, in Saving Private Ryan, stylized Michael Penahis presentation of war violence by enhancing the imagery with tints, shaky camera movements and ratcheted shutter speeds, Ayer wants to present something more unadulterated. Even the interior of the titular tank is far from romantic. Besides photos of loved ones, there is nothing but cold, hard metal bits, much of which blocks out the faces and bodies of the five-member tank crew. They have been consumed by this machine and are only partly human. They are family and hive with various capacities in making “Fury” run while trying to cling to their individual tiny, salvageable bits of humanity.

All actors deserve nods for realizing their characters. Michael Peña’s Mexican character, Trini Garcia, nicknamed “Gordo,” the tank’s driver, handles anxiety with cool determination. Don refers to Jon Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis as an animal when we meet him trying to fix a broken-down “Fury” on a smouldering battlefield. Bernthal infuses Grady with an unstable sort of menace, even when he tries to show affection to his mates by tugging at their ears and noses. Then there’s Boyd “Bible” Swan played with tortured heart by the too often underrated Shia LaBeouf. His Bible-quoting could have easily been a contrivance had LaBeouf not brought such expressive heart to his character. He’s a focused psychotic but also has great affection for those in his company. Sadness and anger with righteous Christian logic used to rationalize behavior never appeared more conflicted.

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Yes, they are a motley crew, but to fault the film on that means you should fault all ensemble adventure films for such tropes since John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s Ayer’s unflinching sensibility that makes the film stand out as a statement film because this is not entertainment. This is a nerve-rattling confrontation with the sublime. The tank battles are not CGI, and the effect only enhances the weight of their power on soft humans — both internally and considering the unforgiving science of visceral matter. Ayer’s only enhancement to the tension is a score by Steven Price featuring swelling, rhythmic horns, voices and timpani and bass drums, but it’s plenty enough to tune into for the sense of dread the director is trying to present with this anti-war film.

We follow these men as they show little mercy to surrendering SS troops, the most fanatical of Hitler’s military. Early in the film, Don gives Norman, who was a mere Army typist before being sent to the front, a brutal lesson in killing. After taking a town “decorated” with bodies of hanged children with signs around their necks dubbing them cowards, Gordo mows down an unarmed, surrendering SS officer alleged to have committed the atrocities. Then, one splice cut later, he makes out withWardaddy (Brad Pitt) in Columbia Pictures' FURY. a now gracious, liberated fräulein. The boys can have a civilized extended meal at the home of two rattled women, and Norman can have a moment to fall in love. But nothing quiet can last in this all-out war. So the mood can be brought down when Fury’s crew brings up France and their methodical execution of scores of wounded horses, and then there’s worse… the return to killing for their lives.

The brutality of the end of World War II was harsh. I’ve heard stories from my father who was forced into the Wehrmacht at 16 years old, when his family tried to flee to Spain. It was that or face a firing squad. He survived Africa and Stalingrad (I’m still looking for a translator of his diaries from that era as pictured in the following post: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). I’m glad that Ayer did not turn this film into some fluffy adventure movie. You might nitpick the characters, but the real star of this film is violence and the strain for humanity to break through it. The culminating skirmish that ends the film speaks to both random luck both good and bad but also a little more: a sense of hope for the only strategy that can end wars:  just stop fighting.

Hans Morgenstern

Fury runs 134 min. and is Rated R (it’s one of the most justifiably, unflinchingly violent films I’ve seen in years). It opens today at your local multiplex. Sony Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

gravity-posterMovies like Gravity are the types of films routine visitors to the multiplex live for. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years feels fresh and exciting by ironically staying as true to the image as possible. From the opening seconds, Cuarón makes an effort to show his devotion to realism by offering a title card explaining sound and temperature in space, debunking myths perpetuated by sci-fi films like Star Wars and their booming interstellar explosions. But most of all, he relies on the image. His effort to avoid editing is so extreme viewers will be hard pressed to find a splice within the film’s first 20 minutes.

His aversion to cutting images is not just a gimmick. It’s an effort to enhance the feeling of reality to what many viewers so easily resign to the “that’s so fake” world of science-fiction. Though Cuarón tries to maintain the illusion of “realism” by avoiding splices as much as possible, far be it from this evolved filmmaker to allow the images to drone on. Limber camera work consistently offers awe-inspiring vistas of the openness of space and keeps the film dynamic even without pace-dictating cuts. It’s also not long into the film when he sends a shower of space debris hurtling at the astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope. Then things get real exciting.

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Cuarón’s dazzling work with uncut action sequences in his criminally underrated previous film Children of Men (2006) reaches new heights with this intimate thriller in space where two astronauts in this freak accident in space struggle to make it back to earth alive. Only two actors appear on screen: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who bring the sincerity to the dialogue, written by the director and his son Jonás Cuarón, which can feel a tad heavy-handed and sentimental when it’s not efficient and quippy. The script’s simplicity helps in maintaining the film’s brisk pace, however, and despite many solitary moments with one of these characters, it never dwells too long in monologue mode.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has almost consistently worked with Cuarón from his first feature, A Little Princess, and has gone on to work with Terrence Malick on his latest films, enhances the visuals like no one else. Shadow and light shift from ominous to becalmed in moments. There’s also something to be said about the score by Steven Price, who pushes the limits of bombast to minimalist heights of sensation when that killer space debris passes through. It’s like the theme from Jaws stripped to sensation. Speaking of the senses, the sound design also deserves mention, which, at appropriate times, feels like what life underwater might sound like. Cuarón has not forgotten any detail.

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Despite the efforts of these filmmakers, distractions do arise, however. The star power of the two leads somehow overshadows their humble roles as astronauts. Bullock carries the baggage of a once-it-girl in movies like Speed and While You Were Sleeping. Hollywood’s pressure for its preference for young women shows clearly on her face (read: plastic surgery). Though Clooney has successfully escaped his “Sexiest Man Alive” aura in films like the Descendants, Syriana and even the American (my review), the script gives him little room to maneuver as anything more than the sly rogue he’s so well at playing.

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Bullock is given the meatier role as a mournful woman who lost her young daughter in a freak accident. As she fights for survival in one Rube Goldberg action sequence after another, she shows a delicate sense for motion in space. She does a lot of great work snatching at the air during what amounts to one epic free-fall. But she also delivers a heartfelt performance that improves the dialogue, capturing a sort of will to live in what often feels like a hopeless situation.

Some may think the premise that starts the catastrophic domino effect in space contrived. As Gravity tries so hard to stay as true to science fact, it will in turn beg for more scrutiny. For every smart effort like floating fireballs and tear drops, a threat to break suspension of disbelief arises. Get over it and go with it. It’s a movie. Yes, this film is nothing but a painstakingly polished thrill ride at the movies, but dang it if it’s not brilliantly constructed to crush the cynic in us, from eggheads looking to pick apart the inconsistencies with real-life rules of space to the cinephiles who dare the screen to make them cling to their arm rests.

Hans Morgenstern

Gravity is rated PG-13 (it’s intense and characters react appropriately with a few f-bombs) and runs 90 minutes. You can catch it at any multiplex right now in 3-D, HD, 35mm and IMAX. Warner Bros. invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)