THE SUICIDE SQUAD
Comic-book movies, it should go without saying, reside in the magical realm of do-overs. Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin left a kitschy taste in your mouth? Give Christopher Nolan's über-dark take on the Dark Knight a shot! Zack Snyder's Justice League was underwhelming? Prepare to be overwhelmed by the twice-as-long, fully italicized Zack Snyder's Justice League! Not a fan of Eric Bana's Hulk? Try Edward Norton's! No, wait – we mean Mark Ruffalo's!
Even those of us who generally bemoan this practice have to concede that it's usually a successful one; I'll take a Nolan over a Schumacher any day of the week, and Ruffalo's grouchy green guy is indeed superior to Norton's, which was indeed superior to Bana's. (Nope, I still haven't caught up with the four-hour Justice League. No need to wait for further updates.) And writer/director James Gunn's re-imagining of David Ayer's Suicide Squad – now outfitted with a “The” and an identifiable sense of humor – is almost inarguably a stronger piece of work than DC Films' five-year-old predecessor: more tightly structured, more visually audacious, almost entirely exposition-free. Yet it's still a rather depressing experience, because instead of finding ways to make the “old” movie better, Gunn appears merely to have found ways to make a Guardians of the Galaxy flick gorier.
For what it's worth, the unrelenting viscera in this new super-anti-hero saga wasn't at all a deal-breaker for me. I've long been a proponent for more characters going “Splat!” in R-rated action comedies, and the majority of grisly fates in this one accounted for the majority of my laughs, not that there were all that many of them. (Laughs, I mean.) But take away the exploding heads and severed limbs and blood spatter on the camera lens and what you're left with is an indifferently plotted, cornily scripted adventure that's like Guardians without the charm, and with an extraterrestrial nemesis – a skyscraper-sized starfish – that's about as threatening as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Suicide Squad may have gotten its do-over, yet going from terrible to merely okay isn't really an improvement worth celebrating.
Happily, I have no hesitancy about celebrating a few of the performers, even though Gunn's generically rat-a-tat dialogue rhythms tend to make most of them – even talents as disparate as Joel Kinnaman and Pete Davidson – sound unnaturally alike. Idris Elba, reliably incensed yet uncharacteristically relaxed about it, is in topnotch dry-comic form as Bloodsport, and his early scenes opposite Storm Reid and the almost mythically fierce Viola Davis suggest a meaner, more tough-minded entertainment than The Suicide Squad ever proves to be. The eternally, enjoyably twitchy David Dastmalchian is an adorably eccentric and apologetic Polka-Dot Man (though the character's mommy issues aren't resolved with the wit I'd hoped), while Alice Braga, as usual, makes a solid impression by again appearing to be the only sane one in the room.
Still, the feeble jokiness of the enterprise – the one-note “He's like (blank), but rude!” predictability of the formula – harms the actors way more than it helps them. John Cena can't seem to find any fresh angles for his Peacemaker who's just Captain America with no moral compass, and because every Guardians needs its Groot, Sylvester Stallone is vocally cast as a man-shark whose chief claim to amusement lies in his sounding exactly like Sylvester Stallone. (Couldn't Gunn have saved the no-doubt-considerable expense of hiring Sly and just made the character a mute who gobbles friend and foe alike? Because the occasional gobbling actually is amusing.) And while I rarely want less of Margot Robbie in my movies, it might officially be time for her, or at least for us, to bid adieu to Harley Quinn. The moment she started her umpteenth, increasingly tiresome ass-kicking accompanied by a familiar pop tune – this time it's “Just a Gigolo” – was the moment I started staring, desperately and helplessly, at my nonexistent watch.
Amidst all the self-consciously naughty tedium, there are a few decent sequences: Bloodsport and Peacemaker one-upping one another by seeing who can kill the most innocent bystanders; the legitimately disturbing scene of an aviary set on fire; Daniela Melchior's Ratcatcher 2 finally revealing what her intensely specific powers can be good for. All told, though, Gunn's The Suicide Squad isn't a subversive twist on a comic-book movie so much as an inferior Mad magazine spoof of one. But I probably won't be disappointed for long. In time, I'm sure, this do-over will itself be done again.
Two months ago, while watching Edgar Wright's thrilling music documentary The Sparks Brothers, I fell madly in love with musicians Ron and Russell Mael, and I had fallen madly in love with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard long before then. So I truly wanted nothing more than to be blissfully gaga for director Leos Carax's Annette, a musical drama in which the Maels provided the songs and score, and Driver and Cotillard – neither of them trained singers – took on the starring roles. Here's the good news: The film is exactly as weird as that particular assemblage of talent, in this particular genre, would suggest. But here's the bad news: It too often merely feels weird for weirdness' sake. There are images and diversions here as magical as any I've yet experienced in a 2021 release. But none of what we see and hear fully resonates, because all of the glorious oddness is in service to a trite narrative (conceived by Carax and the Maels) that's been so done to death over the years that even the presence of a marionette in a significant role can't quite redeem the movie. And that marionette is awesome.
For much of its length, Annette plays like A Star Is Born with a more toxic male lead. Driver's Henry McHenry is a standup comedian awash in raves and sold-out crowds for his one-man show The Ape of God, even though, in the way of seemingly all films about comedians, nothing he says or does is remotely funny. Cotillard's Ann Defrasnoux is an acclaimed soprano with a critically lauded opera running a few blocks from Henry's Los Angeles theatre. (Ann's operatic crooning was actually performed by a professional, but as she proved in her Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose turn, few can lip-synch the way Cotillard can.) Henry and Ann love each so much. You can tell because they keep singing reprises of a song titled “We Love Each Other So Much.” But if you've seen A Star Is Born, you can guess what will happen: Ann's star will rise while Henry's will inevitably fall, with matters in this case complicated by the baby that Ann delivers: the titular Annette, who's played by that aforementioned marionette. So, by Annette's finale, we're given Driver, Cotillard, Sparks tunes, an emotive puppet, arresting Carax visuals, a memorable role for Simon Helberg, a treacherous storm at sea, a couple of murders, and most of the film's characters – even background extras – frequently bursting into song. Why on earth isn't this thing more fun than it is?
It's definitely a hoot at the very beginning, with the composers, the actors, and Carax himself taking their up-tempo “So May We Start” number from the recording studio to the L.A. streets – a preamble that promises insouciance and cleverness from the get-go. Yet a draining negativity begins trickling into the film the moment that song ends, and it grows more prevalent with the long, long scenes of Henry's solo showcase, and Ann's preparations at the opera house, and the couple's sadly repetitive romantic idylls. (I never thought the image of Driver and Cotillard singing in the nude while having sex could be boring, but alas … .) And once Annette enters the picture, giggly delight though the marionette is, Carax quickens the film's descent into full-throttle miserabilism: Henry becomes an active pain, Ann becomes a cipher, and the only honest emotions seem to emanate from the wooden face watching her parents' torment. I like an unapologetic movie downer as much as the next cinephile, but there's so little joy in this prototypical Anguished Artist material that the bummer mood extends to the songs of Sparks, which are usually bastions of pleasure even at their bleakest. Though they don't share much in the way of rapport, Driver and Cotillard sing passably and act better (it's actually Helberg who emerges as best in show), and heaven knows Carax always gives you something to look at. Yet I almost never felt anything at Annette – except when I felt that all of us, including the puppet, deserved more.
Assembled wholly through scenes from the actor's film and stage work and what must be hundreds of thousands of hours of home-video footage, directors Leo Scott's and Ting Poo's documentary Val – newly streaming on Prime Video – is a love letter to Val Kilmer crafted mostly by the performer himself, and I'm not sure it has much purpose beyond serving as a much-needed act of image rehabilitation. At no point, for instance, are tales of the star's alleged drug use commented on, and his widely reported on-set cruelty is casually brushed off with “All I care about is the art” nonchalance. (Isn't Kilmer the guy who, again allegedly, once extinguished a cigarette on a crew member's face?) Truth be told, I was also hoping for a little more insider dirt. After watching teenage Kilmer make fun of Tom Cruise in an early video, it was disappointing to hear him – through narration provided by his son Jack – later report, “Tom and I have always supported each other.” (I saw Top Gun. I ain't buyin' it.)
But even if you've never been a particular fan of Kilmer or his output, and I fall directly in that camp, it's difficult, in Val, not to feel for the man who has all but lost his speaking voice to cancer, and who watched his father piss away most of his son's fortune, and who saw his potential return to acclaim and prestige – in a self-written, one-man play about Mark Twain, no less – fall apart mid-comeback. Plus, there's plenty here for show-biz gossip hounds (and I fall in that camp, too) to be jazzed about. Backstage snippets from his run in the play Slab Boys, in which he co-starred with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon – both of whom moon the camera! Audition tapes that Kilmer (unsuccessfully) made to appear in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Scorsese's GoodFellas! Grade-school Val imitating Robert Shaw in Jaws! Visible proof of the perils of the Batsuit! Marlon Brando demanding to be rocked in his hammock! It's entirely self-serving and probably more flattering than anyone else's doc on the subject would ever be. But Val is still enjoyable, if not very insightful, and its throwaway trivia definitely sticks with you. Ummm … Kilmer went to the Top Gun premiere and his date was Cher?! Where's the documentary on that unfathomable union?!