You know those people who feel the need to tell everyone that they’re “weird” or have a twisted sense of humor or are a geek from way back? These three things don’t necessarily have anything in common, but I’ve certainly heard many people over the years tell me something about themselves that isn’t self-evident from simply spending time with them. It’s a classic case of telling and not showing, and in all likelihood, if someone feels compelled to talk about a personality trait they possess, they probably don’t possess it. So how does this relate to DC Comics’ latest entry into the feature-film world, Suicide Squad? There are a whole lot of folks in this movie telling me how bad they are without any real proof of stated villainy.
Here’s another, more to-the-point question: when did we stop letting our bad guys be bad guys? Nearly every member of this team of criminals has a backstory that makes their bad behavior seem inevitable and sympathetic rather than just the product of a twisted mind. Twisted minds can be fun too. And not all bad guys need to have the end of the world as their ultimate goal. Usually, it’s the more intimate, personal horror stories that are the most tragic. For that reason, The Joker (Jared Leto) is by far the most interesting and boundlessly scary thing in Suicide Squad, and he’s not even a part of the team, nor is he the adversary the team is trying to take down. He’s familiar window dressing, but Leto has injected Joker with such a corrupt soul that you can’t wait to see what he does next.
Let me back this up a bit. As you likely know, Suicide Squad is about the U.S. government, through intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), forcibly recruiting a group of hardened criminals (some of whom have powers or are otherwise enhanced in some way) to take on missions that are too dangerous and sometimes morally compromised. Waller is a genuine, menacing badass, and it becomes clear by the end of the film that she is the most terrifying and threatening person in this movie. She uses military expert Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to wrangle these villains, all of whom are incarcerated, including assassin Deadshot (Will Smith, really distinguishing himself in a rare ensemble appearance), the part animal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Slipknot (Adam Beach), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), firebug Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Joker’s longtime companion, crazy Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).
To watch his back, Flag has the sword-wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and the wildcard witch Enchantress (Cara Delavingne), who is being controlled by the government initially and whose human alter-ego is sleeping with Flag. After a great deal of posturing, resistance and promises made about reducing their sentences, the bad guys finally fall in line. It appears for the sake of this film that writer-director David Ayer (who helmed Fury and End of Watch, wrote Training Day, and co-wrote the original The Fast and the Furious) that Waller is more recruiting these baddies to be the first line of defense against future attacks by other super-powered individuals (someone makes a speech at the beginning of the film about the possible scenario of the now-late Superman bursting on the scene by tearing the roof off the White House) and not so much the part about doing horrible things the government can’t.
As I stated earlier, the biggest element missing from Suicide Squad are unapologetic bad guys. Nearly the entire team—good and bad—has a sob story past. Deadshot just wants to raise his young daughter; Boomerang just wants to get drunk and have sex; Enchantress is possessed against her will; Croc is simply a misunderstood man-lizard; Kitana’s husband was murdered and his soul is trapped in her sword; and even Harley Quinn was tricked by the Joker into falling in love with him when she was his jailhouse therapist in Arkham Asylum. Perhaps the one story I found compelling was Diablo’s. He was a loving and heavily tattooed husband and father who discovered he could start and control fire, got too emotional, and (literally) blew up in his home, with tragic consequences. When we meet him, he’s sworn off using his power against another person ever again, so he becomes a bomb we’re waiting to go off through the whole film.
Suicide Squad is a movie with a boatload of exposition and action sequences that feel stale and lacking in energy or originality. And don’t even get me started on who the ultimate “hidden” villain is here and how they manifest themselves and the nature of their threat to the world. It’s just plain silly and conventional. The action sequences stand in such stark contrast to Joker and Harley’s flashback adventures together that I almost wish this had been a film just about them and their twisted relationship. I also actually really liked Deadshot as a character; I just got really tired of Ayer attempting to soften his villainy by transforming him into the film’s primary antihero. Let me loathe these team members; it’s okay, I’ll still want to see them in a movie, just not this movie.
Although I’m a firm believer that a film’s rating doesn’t really change whether it’s scary, funny or enjoyable in any way, a big step into making these characters appropriately nasty would have been to let them cut loose in an R-rated adventure. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if an R-rated/unrated version of Suicide Squad is released on home video in a few months.
Back to Robbie for a moment, as good as she is in her scenes with Joker or even the few scenes of her alone just being nutso, she doesn’t really shine when she’s thrown in with the other Suicide Squad members, and believe me, they need all the help they can get being interesting. But a flashback sequence with her and Joker fighting off a pesky Batman while they’re on a rampage/date is more like what the film needed in terms of action sequences mixed with demented bad guys. The limited presence of Batman/Bruce Wayne is a critical part of Suicide Squad, despite him barely being in it, not unlike the Joker.
Suicide Squad feels stuffed to the gills, ripped apart and pieced back together in the editing room, and with a few notable exceptions, shockingly run of the mill. For a work that clearly set out to break a few rules in the superhero/villain playbook, it falls right in line by the time the final battle sequence begins and never comes back from that downturn. There are a couple of these characters that I’d love to see in other DC universe films, but only if someone in charge finds a way to incorporate them into a story that doesn’t feel like a cut-and-paste job. Fingers crossed for Wonder Woman.
At its core, this adaptation of Philip Roth’s Indignation is about taking a sheltered, young Jewish man and throwing him into a small college in Ohio, circa 1951, without a clear sense of how to take care of himself. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being A Wallflower) decides that the best thing to do in these circumstances is throw himself into his school work, but he becomes increasingly infatuated with a female classmate, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). They go out on a date, and she becomes rather forward with him (I’ll say no more), which naturally causes more anxiety in Marcus’s life, but the two start spending a great deal of time together.
From first-time writer-director James Schamus (producer of pretty much every Ang Lee film, as well as works by Todd Haynes, Edward Burns and Nicole Holofcener), Indignation captures and zeroes in on the angst that follows Marcus nearly everywhere he goes. Somehow he manages to channel his anxiety into a type of rage that resembles rebellion, and in the film’s best sequence, Marcus is called into the office of Dean Hawes Caudwell (a magnificent Tracy Letts) for one of the most eloquent verbal battles ever captured on film. The two do a dance with words, meaning and conflicting philosophies about the reasons Marcus has been called in at all. The two extended scenes with Marcus and the dean could have been expanded into an entire movie of its own, and it would be awesome.
As Marcus and Olivia continue to see each other, he begins to see the cracks in her perfect features. But it’s the moment when his mother (Linda Emond) meets Olivia where your heart just freezes and you forget to breathe. Dear old Esther is kind to Olivia in front of her face, but when Olivia departs, the true nature of a mother comes to the surface. It’s a shocking and insightful sequence that sets the tone for Marcus’s life from that moment forward.
Indignation is a fully loaded examination of sexual awakening and the neurosis that can be unleashed when someone doesn’t know what goes where when. After taking the better part of a year off from acting, Lerman comes back strong about a boy trying to figure out who he is and what he wants from this period in his life. But its Gadon who steals every scene she’s in, with a blend of poise and instability behind the eyes. She feels like the only selfless grownup in the movie, and even that takes its toll on her.
In a sense, the film captures a moment in time in the early stages of the culture clash that developed more than 10 years later between students and school administrators over the war effort, women’s and civil rights. But in the case of Marcus, he’s fighting for the right to live life the way he sees fit, which includes dating the woman he loves. In large part, the film works in capturing youthful enthusiasm, love and angst, but it moves beyond that into a coming-of-age tale that shows the pain of rebirth. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Not long after retiring from an applause-worthy career as a defensive back from the New Orleans Saints, Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS at age 34 and given a life expectancy of no more than five years. Within weeks of that tragic news, Gleason’s wife, Michel, found out she was pregnant with their first child, and with very little discussion or debate, Steve began to film what would become a series of instructional video journals that could be played for his eventual son, Rivers, when he was older and in need of instruction, guidance or just needed to hear his father’s voice. Director J. Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers, Print the Legend) has constructed a documentary that is both a biopic about Steve but also a look at the efforts he made while still relatively mobile to help others with this debilitating condition.
So often during Gleason, we feel like we’re intruding on some of the most personal moments a person who needs full time medical care could have. But those moments pale in comparison to watching Steve film his journal entries, go through bouts of depression, attempt alternative treatments (including a faith healer, which does not sit well with Michel), and discuss his battle with faith in the face of this disease with his bible-pushing father. There’s a sequence between Steve and Michel where he is attempting to get her to admit that she’s angry with him because he’s ruined her life, and while you can tell the thought might be in her mind, she’s too good a person to say something that hurtful.
The contrast between Gleason’s public and private lives grows more noticeable as his physical limitations become greater. He forms an ALS-centered charitable foundation that uses his name recognition to help ALS patients get access to much-needed mobility devices. And in the midst of all these many triumphs, he attempts an experimental stem-cell treatment that unexpectedly accelerates his condition and makes him so much worse. The film traces the emotional rollercoaster ride to end all such rides.
There’s a noticeable shift in Steve’s attitude once Rivers is actually born. The video journals give way to actual time with his son, fixing what’s broken between him and his father, and doing all that he can to ease the burden on Michel. But when he does address his son via a journal, the entries shift from practical advice to more contemplative thoughts about living fully, being good to people, and embracing your mistakes as part of growing. They are all the things you wished someone had told you in a handy set of video files, but you likely had to learn on your own.
Gleason works on a variety of levels, but the one that got to me was its unflinching look at the progression of ALS, and capturing Steve’s life of watching his body functionality, ability to talk, and eventually ability to breathe get chipped away (he’s still alive, in case you’re wondering) slowly but aggressively from month to month. He guides us through the ordeal, and there’s no indication that cameras were turned away for these moments. It’s a tough watch, but it’s a life-affirming, inspirational and completely honest experience that should not be missed. And if it’s possible for a film to be both devastating and uplifting, Gleason is such a work. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU
Those familiar with pop culture since the 1950s don’t need a documentary to recount the dozens of ways that writer-producer-creator-activist Norman Lear has changed not only the face of television but also the way we view and judge other people who perhaps don’t look or think like us. The show titles alone tell a big part of the story: “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford & Son,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time.” But Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You fills in a great many of the blanks in his personal life, cites sources of inspiration for many of Lear’s greatest characters, and documents a personal history with bigotry that illuminates some of his finest writing.
From the directing team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Detropia, Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka), the film goes through Lear’s childhood, with his emotionally distant father to his early years in television, working on the “Colgate Comedy Hour,” “The Martha Raye Show” and “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.” There’s a surprising amount of archival footage and images throughout the film of Lear at work and at home with his second wife and children. Frances Lear was a noted publisher and feminist, who quietly influenced some of Norman’s best writing, particularly on the series “Maude.” (It’s easy to see how Frances was an inspiration for the character.)
It’s genuinely surprising how many of Lear’s series were inspired by real people in his life or trends he was seeing in the culture that troubled him. Archie Bunker was clearly inspired by his father; even “The Jeffersons” came out of criticisms about “Good Times” for only showing a poor black family on television. Rather than simply show clips from memorable moments on his shows, the directors have Lear or others involved in the series watching them on a big screen and reacting to them, often quite emotionally.
There’s a wealth of valuable footage of Lear working behind the scenes of his various shows at table reads, story conferences, consulting—sometimes arguing—with his actors about certain moments. Esther Role from “Good Times” was constantly challenging Lear’s portrayal of African-Americans in an effort to make the show feel more authentic. The filmmakers mix new interviews with Lear with old talk show appearances, and do a fairly solid job of drawing a beautifully rounded portrait of an incendiary artist. There’s perhaps a bit too much in Just Another Version of You about his third wife and newest kids—it’s clear that they’re important to him, but knowing that doesn’t add much to the film.
There are also these strange little inserts through the film of a young boy wearing Lear’s now-famous white hat, going through a few moments in Lear’s early life that aren’t so much traditional re-creations but more surreal interpretations of mood and insight. It doesn’t really work the way I think the filmmakers want it to, but they are scattered throughout and don’t really distract us from the more interesting work being shown.
Overall, however, the film (which carries an “American Masters” banner on it, so look for it on PBS later this year) is an exquisite look at one of the great creative instigators of our times. And if you need something handsome to look at—not that Lear isn’t a striking figure even in his 90s—George Clooney is all over this thing as a quite eloquent commentator on Lear’s substantial impact on the times he worked in. There’s a great deal to like in this one. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
ROSEANNE FOR PRESIDENT!
Much like the subject herself, director Eric Weinrib’s (a sometimes producer for Michael Moore, who appears in the film a fair amount) Roseanne for President! is a little ragged around the edges but is still a thought-provoking work that will make you laugh and think in equal measure. The film follows comedian Roseanne Barr’s failed—but quite sincere—bid for the Green Party nomination for president in the 2012 election (a familiar face, Dr. Jill Stein, got the nomination). Armed with an arsenal of four-letter words, a healthy distrust of the current political system and resulting government, a belief in universal health care, pure vitriol about banks, and a pocketful of weed (like the card-carrying hippie she is), Barr put her name and beliefs out there and had a great deal of support in the party from those who believed a well-known candidate would bring the group far more attention and increase their rank and file.
In many ways, the reasons that Barr did not end up being the candidate are right there on the screen. She dislikes large groups of people (and the hand-shaking that goes along with campaigning), more because she’s slightly paranoid about “crazies.” She enlisted Farheen Hakeem, a Muslim woman, as her campaign manager, who often found herself making excuses for Barr not being at a given debate with Stein when Stein showed up every time. Barr seems perfectly fine sitting in her Hawaiian home with longtime boyfriend John Argent talking strategy and being frustrated by her low delegate count, when it seems fairly clear that delegates wanted to meet the person they were voting for before the primaries.
Throughout the film, Barr, her family and professional friends (including Moore, Tom Smothers, Sandra Bernhard and Rosie O’Donnell) remind us that her long-running, highly rated “Roseanne” television series (as well as her stand-up act that inspired it) tackled many issues relating to women’s rights, gay rights and the struggles of the working class—all areas that still mean a great deal to her. And while she took this race mostly seriously, she wasn’t above poking fun at the idea of her being in charge of the country (she originally supported the wholly reasonable idea of bringing back the guillotine and chopping the heads off of corrupt bankers).
For a brief moment in the film, when Barr’s delegate count takes something of an uptick, she contemplates the idea of being a spoiler in the same way Ralph Nader was painted as being as the Green Party candidate in the 2000 presidential election. I don’t think at any point Barr believes she’ll win the presidency, but she is aware that being a chosen candidate for a third party (she ended up as the nominee for the Peace and Freedom Party) does mean that your ideas will get out in a way that just sitting at home posting YouTube rants might not.
And the truth is, Roseanne knows how to capture an audience’s attention, speak persuasively and clearly to crowds (although her on-stage discussion of how marijuana protects you from mind control might be a bit off-putting), and on those occasions where she damn well feels like it, she can be as charming and funny (funnier, actually) as any mainstream politician. Part civics lesson, part satire, what Roseanne for President! most definitely is not is a celebrity ego trip or publicity stunt (if she was trying to publicize anything but her political beliefs, it was lost on me). For a fleeting moment, the 2012 election was made a little more interesting. If Barr were to have run this year, I’m not sure she’d get noticed in all the chaos and viciousness. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.