Thursday, June 29, 2017

Babylon 5: The Closed Circle

Say what you want about J. Michael Straczynski, he understands story structure.

There were always questions about the way Babylon 5 was conceived as a story. The networks weren't sure that a television audience would have the patience for a tale that asks you to hang in there for five seasons to see the payoff. In the age of binge watching Netflix shows, it seems that this is still an active question.

By creating a story framework with definite events mapped out, Straczynski freed up the writers to hang fun, self contained stories off of it and made it possible to add touches of foreshadowing all throughout the show as well.

One episode about halfway through season one of Babylon 5 literally shows you something that will happen in season five. It's completely without context, adds a sense of urgency and foreboding to earlier seasons, and is extremely cathartic in the season five payoff. It rewards careful watching and re-watching.

That sound you hear is Chechov's Gun chambering. It's a trope for a reason and when handled well, it is emotionally satisfying for the watcher (or reader).

(It also allows for time travel plots that are handled in a far more believable way than some more recent shows have done. *coughcoughDCcoughcough*)

I love it. I wish more shows were made in this fashion.

What are some other shows or writers that do structure well, either within episodes or over series?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Babylon 5: Understanding is a Three Edged Sword

Good dialogue is something I really struggle with as a writer, but Babylon 5 has it in spades.

Comedic one-liners: "I don't care if they agreed to wear bunny suits and sing the Hallelujah Chorus."

Grim threats: "Rest assured that while your body may one day be found, it could never be identified from what was left."

Deep questions: "You're getting dressed in the morning, You're pulling on your pants. Do you zip and then fasten or fasten and then zip?"

Clarifications: "Slight difference in how you pronounce. Za-thras. Za-thras. Za-thras. You are seeing?"

And then there's the music critiques:

Seriously, show creator J. Michael Straczynski does some of his best work with small frame dialogues between two characters. Season 3 has an episode where two characters are trapped in an elevator and their interaction is tense, funny, and mesmerizing.

Please post some of your favorite lines or scenes in the comments. I'd love to discuss them.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Babylon 5: Our Last, Best Hope

There's a tendency in a lot of science fiction television to gear everything toward the dark and dystopian. Look at shows like Black Mirror, Dark Matter, Into the Badlands, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Even Firefly, with all its humor and a likable cast, is set in a dystopia complete with both a totalitarian government AND environmental disaster.

Now, these settings are fun to play around in. But for my money, fiction needs hope to entertain over the long haul. Characters, and the audience experiencing the narrative through them, have to believe that their actions matter and that they can make the world better. How can this be done if the Alliance will implacably expand its reach, the Cylons are inescapable because we are the Cylons, and we can never, ever atone for our past?

In Babylon 5, by contrast, the future is a place of possibility and wonder, but to make peace a reality takes constant work from all sides. And hope is the fuel of such action. Characters change and grow because they begin to believe that they can.

This comes through in the very idea of the Babylon Project.

The series plays with this theme of hope in every season. Hope that peace can be maintained, hope that old wounds can heal, that relationships can be restored, that life can have meaning, that sacrifice is not without purpose, that our inheritors will find a better world than the one we were born into.

Part of this comes through in the show's handling of religion. Unlike the subversion or nullification of religion in the other shows, faith in the transcendent is a good thing in the Bab-5 universe. While some characters are shown to distort or misuse religion, legitimate belief is shown to be a source of strength and hope. And this lends motivation for action.

If hope is illusory, then characters can stoically suffer, party in antinomian denial, or kill themselves. If the wheel always keeps spinning, then the best you can hope for is to never see the shake-up in your lifetime. Every action of every character is futile, because nothing lasts.

But, if hope has real grounding beyond the material and if actions actually matter, then hope becomes the driving force behind the scenes and characters can dream and aspire.

In Babylon 5, characters find hope and share it with the viewer. And, to quote one such character, "Hope is all we have."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Babylon 5 is What Sci-Fi is Missing (or My Yearly Pilgrimage to a Place That Doesn't Exist)

When I ask people about their favorite science fiction shows, I see a lot of wistful looks for one show in particular. People get angry or depressed, or angry and then depressed, and go on and on for hours about how they wish they could go back and watch it again for the first time. The halls of the internet echo with complaints that there just isn't more.

Of course they're talking about Firefly.

When I ask them if they've watch other sci-fi shows, the usual grab bag of geek pop culture shows up: Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, etc.

Almost never mentioned is my favorite show, Babylon 5. I consider this show to be one of the best space operas of all time.

I'm honestly not sure why it doesn't get more credit. The show has everything you could want: epic space battles (with some actual tactics; missile interceptors and capital ships say what?), mysterious alien races, ancient prophesies, political intrigue, romance, loss, redemption, telepaths, sword fights, and time travel.

And it does something almost no show ever gets to do: it told a complete story, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. (DS9 is the closest thing I've ever seen to it, and it ran too long and ended up with too many filler episodes.)

This past week, I began my yearly re-watch through Babylon 5. As I go through the seasons, I want to post some thoughts about why I enjoy the show so much and maybe shed a little light on a quiet classic of television.

 I'll start tomorrow with the biggest advantage Babylon 5 has over almost anything else on television today: hope.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Wonder Woman

(This review may contain spoilers)

Expectations: I had been excited for this movie from the moment Diana Prince first showed up in Batman vs Superman. As I stated previously, Gal Gadot was a bright spot in that film and her performance there gave me hope that this movie would be a much better outing for the DC film franchise. I was not disappointed.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marvel's Iron Fist

Once again, this review is NOT spoiler free.

Expectations: Given Marvel’s track record with these shows, I was definitely looking forward to Iron Fist when it was announced. Then I saw the first trailers. I was...underwhelmed. The lead actor looked the part, there was some mystery initiated in the narration, and we got glimpses of people like Madam Gao to up the ante, but we didn’t get to see much in the way of amazing martial arts.

In preparation for the launch, I spent some birthday cash to pick up copies of the Immortal Iron Fist comics run begun by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja, which were fantastic. After reading them, I was ready to see a mystical monastery, hordes of ninja assassins, a showdown with the dragon Shao-Lao the Undying, and kung fu artistry to make Jet Li ashamed.

I got none of those things.

Easter Eggs: I caught a poster showing Stan Lee’s face in one of the later episodes and there are multiple references to the other Defenders peppered throughout the dialogue.

Opening Sequence: This was a real let down for me. All three previous Marvel Netflix offerings had fitting (in the case of Daredevil, perfectly so) openings and music. Iron Fist’s opening is a CGI rendering of the title character performing kung fu, with the moves leaving swirling lines of wavy, ink-dark tracery behind that is reminiscent of Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. All of this is set to a blend of traditional Eastern music and Tron-Legacy-like techno beat. So far, so good.

However, the color pallet is all dark grays, leaving the lines with less pop. Additionally, at the end of the sequence, the lines reveal nothing. They serve no purpose but to “look cool”. During the first episode, I kept waiting for the pan out to show us Iron Fist’s kata had drawn out the dragon symbol of his power. Contrast this with Daredevil’s opening which hints at both character motivation and actions. Overall, it just felt like a missed opportunity.

Themes: Iron Fist is a show about purpose and the search for meaning. Several characters are caught between who they want to be and what they feel they need to do. Because it relates so closely to Luke Cage’s theme of choices, I can easily see Luke and Danny having common ground in the upcoming Defenders title.

Acting: I don’t have any complaints here. Everyone in the main cast did a solid job. Finn Jones did a good job showing the innocence that a young man who grew up secluded in a monastery would have. Jessica Henwick is very good as Colleen Wing, the martial arts instructor and sidekick, with sweetness and confidence in equal measure. Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey were completely believable as sister and brother duo Joy and Ward Meachum. I think Pelphrey deserves special mention for his work on a character who ends up being as complex as Ward. David Wenham is an utterly human kind of monster as Harold Meachum, Ward and Joy’s father. Rosario Dawson just is Claire Temple at this point. And Wai Ching Ho returns with a good bit more screen time as Madam Gao, manipulator extraordinaire, a role that seems like it was written with her in mind.

Writing: This show has three major flaws and two of them are here.

First is pacing. I completely understand the complaints of slow pacing that began echoing down the tubes that comprise the internet when the show first aired. I think this was deliberate on the part of the writers. The main character meanders through a good portion of his life, pulled this way and that by competing loyalties and goals, and the story meanders with him.

Another reviewer I listened to theorized that, in the age of binge watch television like Netflix and Amazon Video, the writers were trotting out not thirteen distinct episodes, but a thirteen hour origin story movie. I can’t speak to the writers’ and producers’ intentions, but at times the plot feels like it’s true.

As a result, we spend an awfully large amount of time in stories that are centered around people who aren’t the title character.

Which brings up the second flaw: side characters that are more interesting than the main character. I have two in mind specifically: Ward Meachum and Colleen Wing.

Ward starts off as the mirror opposite of Danny. He’s got a family, an important place at Rand Enterprises, and a sense of purpose and drive. He’s also an annoying brat. Over the course of the show, Ward loses his position at Rand, he loses the love of and respect for his abusive father, and loses the purpose that his father had given him by proxy: building the Meachum legacy at Rand.

What Ward does that Danny does not seem to fully do, is replace what he’s lost. He regains his position at Rand, this time on his own terms. He not only stands up to his father, he is instrumental in helping bring him down. He actively tries to protect his sister. And along the way he grows into a sympathetic character. The viewer WANTS Ward to win.

But the best thing about this show is Colleen Wing. She’s the most fully orbed character we meet. The first time we see her on screen, she gives Danny, who she thinks is a homeless beggar, a couple of dollars. The very same scene shows her tacking up flyers for her struggling dojo, underlining her compassion. She continues in that vein, honorably and capably giving of herself and her skills to her students and to Danny. When her love for Danny challenges what she believes, she follows him into certain danger repeatedly and gives up the closest thing she has to family for him.

Compare that to the main character’s story arc. Danny Rand starts off as a homeless orphan who’s been raised by interdimensional warrior monks (in a monastery we never get to see) to be a living weapon in a battle he doesn’t fully comprehend. He abandons those duties, and the only family he’s had for fifteen years, to return to New York. He then, through luck and the compassion of a childhood friend, becomes the billionaire majority shareholder of his father’s corporation. He proceeds to mandate policy changes, despite having no understanding whatsoever of how to run a business. He then abandons his duties as a board member to pursue The Hand, all the while being manipulated left and right by their very agents.

After he’s managed to screw up everything with his lack of focus, his best friend from K’un Lun rescues him and tries to bring him back to fulfill the duties of the Iron Fist. What does Danny do? He pulls rank and insists that, since he’s the Iron Fist, he’ll use his power however he wants and runs off to prevent a monster he set free from destroying the very legacy he came back to claim in the first place.

Not everything about the writing is bad, however. The attempts by both Madam Gao and Bakuto to manipulate Danny into working with them or ignoring them are pretty well executed. All of Harold Meachum’s manipulations, as well as his slowly growing insanity, are laid out with skill.

Danny does have a couple moments showing real growth. One scene that jumps to mind is him asking his office manager at Rand Enterprises for help in sifting information that is related to the activities of The Hand. His concern for her and for the company win her over and we get to see a little charm thrown in with the addition of an origami lotus that he leaves on her desk.

Action: The third and final flaw is this: badly done fight scenes. The Immortal Iron Fist is Marvel’s premier kung fu action hero. Not only do we not get very much of him showing off his skills, especially at first, what we do get is not quite on par with Daredevil in terms of choreography and aesthetic.

In perhaps the worst example of this, Colleen takes on a guard at a Hand compound and takes him out at the end of the fight with a stomp to the head. The camera clearly shows the actress stomping in front of the man’s face. While this is by no means the norm, if fans go in expecting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and get Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, there is a problem somewhere.

That said, there are several large fights. Danny takes on security guards, hatchet wielding gangsters, Hand trainees, and DEA agents en masse. People are punched, kicked, subjected to joint locks, stabbed, bashed, and shot. There’s a fight in a moving truck that involves kitchen utensils. Danny uses the power of the Iron Fist to break down doors, escape from restraints, and send a group of bad guys flying. Cars get dented and windows shatter.

The most visceral violence occurs in Harold Meachum’s sanctum. He hits his son Ward, then gives him platitudes about how he loves Ward and is doing all this to secure him a legacy. Ward stabs Harold with a wakizashi (a Japanese short sword). Harold kills and disfigures two Hand agents and makes Ward dispose of the bodies. Harold pulverizes his own assistant with the butt of an ice cream scoop.

One final point in the show’s favor is, again, Colleen Wing. With the one unfortunate exception I mentioned above, the choreography for Colleen is quite good. She takes on opponents much larger than her by relying on surprise, speed, superior training, and usually her ancestral katana (a Japanese long sword). She moves like a bouncy ball of doom. In short, she’s portrayed as an amazingly talented martial artist with weaknesses and strengths that are different from the people around her and in keeping with her stature.

Music: Unmemorable. There’s a running gag regarding Danny listening to old school rap and hip hop while he runs through his forms, but aside from that I can’t pick anything out.

Summary: I feel like there was a really good story buried under the slow pacing, but it just didn’t center around Danny Rand, the Iron Fist. For the first time in a while, Marvel has given us an offering that doesn’t seem to understand its audience or its title character. If you’re looking for martial arts action and a compelling hero, skip this and go re-watch Daredevil.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Other Side of the Door

Listening to God is an Astronaut's Suicide by Star and I wrote the following short. Almost certainly not what they had in mind, but great music to write by.

Cirran breathed in the hot, musty air as sweat dripped down his face. The scraping, skittering sounds came from the door again and his hand spasmed on the controls in reflex. He licked his lips, blinking against the glare as the local star crested the lip of the viewscreen.

“Ship. Lock trajectory and initiate maximum available thrust.”

“That course of action is not recomm-”

“Override. Command code ‘Declination’. Serial number 57821, Tango. Confirm.”

“Override confirmed.” Acceleration pushed him into the seat.

A bark of sound welled up from Cirran’s throat, a laugh half strangled by sobs. Tears dripped down to join the sheen of saline on his face and he leaned back in the command chair. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and tried to calm his breathing. Every breath brought a
hint of copper.

“Hold it together, kid. It’ll be a wild ride.” He could see Daerion’s cocky grin beaming over from behind the transparent faceplate, light from ion shells streaking his visage with neon warpaint.

Something thrummed through the ship and the warning lights began blinking over the propulsion readings. The hum of the engines was gone. In the silence, the scraping of the escapees work on the command deck’s door locks was all the clearer. Cirran pounded on the console with a grunt of frustration, smacking the control stick into a slowly fading metronome. Tick, tick, tick...

Pulse pounding, breaths rasping, Cirran made his way to the security locker. His eyes felt pulled to the corner, but he locked his gaze on the matte grey finish and the serene green glow of the security pad. His trembling hands pulled a small rectangle of bloody cloth from his uniform pocket and he typed in the code. The locker opened with a mechanized whir, revealing the mag pistol and ammunition, a security tac vest, a first aid kit, and a pair of auspex.

He reached for the gun in manic haste. It took three tries to finish loading it. After a second’s hesitation, he pulled out the first aid kit as well. He left the vest and the ‘spex alone. If the escapees breached the doors…

Cirran spun back to the console and his left foot slid out from under him. The med kit went clattering across the deck as he fell backward, arms windmilling out to the sides. His head hit metal with a thud and sharp flash of pain and light. He blinked away the dancing motes and rolled onto his side. He was lucky he hadn’t shot himself when he hit.

He moved to push himself back up and noticed the blood. The actinic tang filled his nostrils. Crimson warmth coated his left side and pooled shallowly over the deck, smeared by his passage.  A tributary led back up the brief steps to the ops station in the corner. Cirran’s eyes followed it against his will.

Mirri’s glassy eyes fell on him with damning weight.

Arclight fell on the arboretum lawn in an argent web, revealing glimpses of pale skin. Green eyes gleamed from the shadows. The breeze prickled his body and brought with it the scents of flowers. Her breath touched his ear.

“We can stay together.”

Cirran staggered away, gagging on bile, on fear, on failure. He hid his face in the command chair, clung to the seat for life. He screamed, shrieked. He pounded on the seat, sobbing.

The doors shook with a clang, then another. He looked up. The prisoners had ditched the subtle method. He didn’t have much time.

Cirran plodded dully to the fallen med kit. Mirri watched him, silent, patient. He felt her anger soften into pity as he opened the case.

She covered her mouth with her hand as he fell on the ice. She skated over in graceful, easy motions. She held out her hand to him. She wasn’t wearing gloves.

“Need some help?”

He reached out and pulled her down on top of him.

Cirran pulled out the injector and the painkiller vial. He loaded the vial and jammed the injector onto the meat of his forearm. A stream of cold ran up his veins and entered his heart. Calm spread soon after. He closed his eyes and imagined his heart beating in time to the blows on the door. Clang. Ba-dum. Clang. Ba-dum.

Behind it all, he could A vibration at least. Something vast. Was the ship shivering slightly? Was he?

It took some time for the insanity to ebb. As it did, it left him hollow. He felt light, diffuse.He dropped the injector and scooped up the gun. He stood and turned toward the viewscreen. The star filled the whole of it now. His people called it Clarion, a class A3V, young and bright, its nuclear fires set to last for hundreds of millions of years. In the mythology of ancient Kathar, it was the last note of the song that sung the heavens into being. The destiny of all souls, a guide and waypost to the life hereafter. He imagined he could feel the light from the viewscreen passing right through him. He was a phantom, a ghost, carried on the starlight.

“That’s how you make it through a real engagement, Rook.” Daerion took a sip from his drink. “Fear is hesitation and hesitation is death. So, go in dead and come out alive.”

The clanging sounds shifted, stretching into a creaking. They were almost through. Cirran opened his eyes and turned to the door. It flexed open a half inch, then shut again. Shouts came.

He shifted direction. The gun came up and put four smoking holes in the console. Warning lights flickered and died. Puffs of smoke rose like incense. He turned back to the console and stared at the image of Clarion, blazed it into his mind.

He wondered just what was on the other side of the door.

The gun rose again and fired. Drops of crimson hit the viewscreen, glittering like rubies in the starlight.


This review is NOT spoiler free.

Expectations: My expectations for this movie had been high ever since I saw the trailer set to Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt. The trailer was intense and gritty and perfectly in keeping with what I knew about Wolverine. I was expecting regret, pain, violence, and redemption. I got all of that, though more of some than others. I’m giving this a 7/10 overall.

Easter Eggs: I did not catch any real easter eggs in this movie.

Action: I knew going in that this was going to be a violent movie. It was, after all, one of two R rated features starring Marvel characters and helmed by the same man who directed The Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma, and Identity. Additionally, said Marvel character is oft quoted as saying “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.”

The movie starts with a drunken Wolverine literally taking apart some thugs trying to steal from him. Things stay slow for a bit after that, but once the main antagonists show up, the body count steadily goes up.

And the camera never flinches. We see dismemberments, impalings, decapitations, and eviscerations in grisly detail. Punches, kicks, flips, and throws accompany the slaughter. Gun shots abound. There’s an extended car chase sequence that ends with a limo kissing the front of a train. Characters are run down with trucks. There is at least one major explosion.

Then there’s the superpowered violence. People are immolated, torn apart by a telekinetic whirlwind of wood splinters, electrocuted, and frozen. One person has a car dropped on them with ferrokenesis (magnetism).

In fact there is so much violence it quickly becomes boring. You know how most every scene is going to play out: the bad guys shoot, then Logan or Laura shakes off the hits and tears them apart. By the time we get to the ending showdown, only the stakes involved are keeping the audience interested.

By contrast, the least bloody moments of violence are the most intense. When the albino Caliban is forced into the light as a form of torture to make him betray his friends. Professor X’s death wound, delivered from the shadows. The winner’s crown, though, goes to the scene of Professor X having his “episode” in the casino. It’s a fairly long sequence and between the sound effects and acting the intensity ramps slowly up all the way through. Watching Logan struggle to save his friend and AGAINST his friend at the same time was an amazing bit of storytelling.

Music: Unremarkable. I could not name a memorable moment of original music if my life depended on it.

Costumes/Visuals: I thought the cybernetic enhancements on some of the goons were okay, but both ubiquitous and underused: there to look cool and that’s about it. There really wasn’t much to the costumes. Normal people would wear those clothes. Caliban’s poncho get-up for moving about in the sunlight is the only memorable one.

Original Material: Having read Wolverine-centric comics only in passing, I’m not always sure what is original to the movie. Having said that, I have never seen anyone play around with the idea of a physical brain disease affecting control over mental powers like that.

Acting: The acting in this film was great. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart embody the characters and their history completely. Patrick Stewart makes the Professor’s growing senility tragic, humorous, and terrifying.  Boyd Holbrook is quietly menacing as Southern outlaw Pierce. Stephen Merchant puts in a solid comic relief performance as Caliban. The entire Munson family felt real; I’ve eaten with those people at a church picnic.

Screenplay: This is a story about a broken man. When the story begins, Logan hates himself. He’s isolated physically by living in an abandoned manufacturing plant and emotionally by his anger. He is dying, his regenerative capabilities sapped by the poison leeching into him from the very adamantium that sustained him for so long. He is resentful of Professor X for what happened in Westchester, for the burden of caring for him after, and he’s resentful of the rest of the X-Men who died and left him to carry on alone. He is depressed, waiting for death to take the pain away.

This a story about family, with Professor X cast as the aging grandfather, Logan as the dutiful, but hurt son, and Laura as the wayward grand-daughter. Every scene of Charles and Logan talking in a small space is poignant. Logan hasn’t turned his back on the Professor and Charles refuses, even past his dying breath, to let Logan live an existence without hope. Despite everything, they haven’t given up on each other.  In Laura, Logan sees a reflection of himself: isolated, angry, and hurt. In helping her to heal, he lets himself take on the role of a father, a role he doesn’t feel worthy of until it forces him to become worthy.

This is a story about re-learning what is important. Logan, and the writers, seem to understand that there are some things you do because they are right. Logan displays courage, loyalty, familial love and compassion. He does care for Professor X, even when it’s a fight, and refuses to abandon him. He has compassion on Laura and the other children, doing what he can to aid them. He fights for them, willingly subjecting himself to abuse for their sake. And at the end, he lays down his life for someone he loves.

There were a few scenes that were especially moving:

  • Professor X in the hotel, as I stated in the Action section.
  • Pretty much everything about the meal at the farmhouse.
  • The dialogue leading up to Professor X’s death.
  • When Logan takes a vial of restorative and, for one brief moment, he’s the Wolverine again.
  • Logan waking up from his nightmares and having to explain that in them, he’s the monster.

Sadly, this is also a story with flaws. There are a couple of plot holes.

Firstly, when the villain, who’s actively hunting Laura, has to remind the mooks to “Stop shooting! She heals.” one has to think: Well, then why did you only bring guns? What about an electrified net? Tranquilizer darts? Flamethrower? Any of those would have upped the action in one way or another, and since you made her you should know not to bring ineffective weapons.

Secondly, why do Logan and company stop at the farmhouse? They know they are being pursued. Every moment they waste brings danger closer to them and to anyone around. That encounter sets up some of the best scenes in the movie, but it makes no sense.

Thirdly, as the guys over at Comic Book Education pointed out, why on earth does getting to Canada solve all the problems for the young mutants? Do you honestly think that people who have no compunction about murdering helpless surrogate mothers, young children, or a random farming family and who have the backing of at least part of the U.S. government will balk at invading Canada? If this isn’t the setup for a New Mutants movie, then I would have liked to have seen the terrifying and valiant cyborg-centaurs of the new Royal Canadian Mounted Police decimate the pursuers with portable rail guns to showcase said deterrence.

Aside from plot holes, content is definitely an issue worth considering.

I expected violence. It doesn’t offend my sensibilities too much, if it has a purpose to it. But did I really need to see claws shoved through heads repeatedly? I feel like they went for shock value with some of the gore and just overplayed their hand. We needed more feeling of danger to the characters and less blood actually on the ground.

I expected language. The title character is an angry, wounded, old (two hundred plus) ex-soldier. When he buries the closest thing he has to a father and as he tries to leave the graveside the truck won’t start? Yeah, I think screaming curses and hitting the heap of junk with a shovel is decidedly in character.  

Still, another reviewer clocked nearly fifty f-words, to say nothing of lesser profanities. Invective was invented to add emphasis. Overuse turns it into punctuation. Again, I feel like the writers overplayed their hand here simply because they knew they had an R rating to play in.

Additionally, there was one brief scene of completely gratuitous nudity.

Summary: Logan is at times a stirring portrayal of loyalty, hope, family, and redemption. The film values those things and reminds us not to forget them. But it mixes that with loads of gory violence and profanity. The core story is engaging, but I think there are missteps that get in the way of what could have been a mythic redemption tale.

Suicide Squad Review

This review is NOT spoiler free.

Expectations: Going in, I tried very hard to ignore the critical lambasting that this film was getting. I was pretty sure that this would be DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the opening weekend box office seemed a pretty strong indicator. I was expecting a fun, action packed, wisecracking film that you shouldn’t over-think and I got pretty much exactly that. I’d give this film a 7/10.

Easter Eggs: The only one I caught was in the dossier for Harley Quinn, which listed her as an accomplice in the death of Robin.

Action: Honestly, this was the reason you were going to see this film and the director knew it too. This film barely takes a breath without something blowing up or someone getting shot, punched, stabbed, or electrocuted. Helicopters plummet from the sky, buildings are destroyed, lightnings carve apart aircraft carriers, bullets rain down from above, and evil minions are shot, sliced in two, charbroiled, and have their heads smashed open with a bat.

The director and coordinators did a pretty good job of showcasing the different talents for violence on display with the anti-heroes. Harley’s bat has a cartoonish “Donk” sound overlaid on it and she gets by on insanity driven fearlessness. Killer Croc bodily lifts enemies and slams them into one another with beastial strength. Katana dances her way through bad guys. Soldiers lay down a fusilade like they’re supposed to in movies. And Deadshot climbs on a car and shows them up, gunning down fifty minions in maybe ten seconds.

Somehow, though, the film is surprisingly bloodless. You never see the victims of the Big Bad’s Death Machine. The evil minions are all featureless, bulbous pinatas that explode into black pumpkin chunks. Victims of one of the demi-god bad guys happen almost entirely offscreen. And even the human gunshot victims die in a sort of “Bang! You’re dead!” abruptness.

That doesn’t mean that the action isn’t disturbing. Some of the violence takes the form of torture. The camera follows one bullet into a man’s head. And then there’s Harley and Joker...but we’ll get to that later.

Other things I didn’t like:
  • Too many shaky-cam cuts. I HATE shaky-cam.
  • Batman shows up as the antagonist in a couple scenes and he is neither impressive nor scary. That just ain’t right.
  • Slipknot, a character so minor he is literally there just to have his head removed as a lesson to the rest of the Squad.

Music: The music written specifically for the film is, well...forgettable. It fits the movie, it builds the tension, and it does all this without you noticing it much. The songs used for the film though, were on the money. With one notable exception (Spirit in the Sky is just so discordant with the scene it’s used in...which, come to think of it, may be the point), every last one is placed perfectly and excellently suited to the character. When Sympathy for the Devil kicked on, I just knew Amanda Waller was about to slide out of that black, unmarked motorcade. And so did everyone who knows the character.

Costumes/Visuals: I thought the film looked pretty good for the budget. The set pieces weren’t that impressive, but the costumes evoked the history of the characters and looked reasonable given the setting. The Deadshot costume was right off of the Justice League cartoon show. Even Killer Croc looked believable. Katana’s mask looked a little silly, but it’s part of the character. They could have done a bit better with the Enchantress CGI effects, but I thought that the transformations used on that character were effective.

Going into the film the big question mark was, of course, the Joker. And I think the film answered that one well. Jared Leto’s makeup and costuming look solidly different from pretty much anything heretofore: a crazy mish-mash of Mob Boss, Pennywise, and a Dental Insurance Nightmare.

Original Material: Speaking of the Joker, while he and Harley Quinn have a long history of deranged not-love relationship in the cartoons and some comics, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like a detailed origin story for Harley. It is at the same time engrossing, disturbing, and heartrending. She is the embodiment of Stockholm Syndrome and the film seems to hint that a part of her still wants to save the Joker from himself. For his part, Joker seems to require Harley the way a heroine addict needs a fix. He needs her adoration, her worship or his life has no direction or meaning. Thus, he goes to incredible lengths to retrieve her from her imprisonment.

The relationship between Rick Flagg and June Moone/Enchantress is new, from what I can tell. It obviously gave Flagg a reason to do Waller’s bidding, but I think it may have taken his character too far from the comic original.

Screenplay: I’ll get the bad news out of the way first.

As stated, the film kept the pedal down on the action, but the plot meanders quite a bit. I believe the rumors that there are at least twenty five shots in the various trailers that never made it into the theatrical release of the film. It doesn’t help that part of that dislocation comes from establishing flashbacks for every character, which zip us out of the narrative proper. Neither does it help that some of those flashbacks (especially following Harley and Joker) were so weird, interesting, and just plain different that I wished they’d been in their own movie instead. You don’t mind the flashbacks, but there’s a lot of run time eaten up by these scenes and they could have been worked into the flow of the narrative a bit better.

Also of note in the thumbs down category are characters who don’t get enough screen time to be worth it. As I noted in the Action section, Slipknot is less of a character and more of a humanoid object lesson. They could have demonstrated the explosives on a pumpkin with just as much effect and not needed the expense of casting and costuming this character.

Speaking of non-entities, there are two more prime examples: Incubus and Captain Boomerang. Incubus, the male half of the evil-Mayan-Wonder-Twins, is there to provide an escape loophole for the Enchantress and to look imposing. He looms well and that’s about it it.

Jai Courtney is wasted on Captain Boomerang. We learn nothing about the character’s backstory beyond “he’s a thief and a murderer”, he does literally nothing useful for the Squad the entire movie, and his dialogue consists of bad pickup lines and un-funny jokes. He’s despicable, worthless as a member, and worst of all boring. You could remove him entirely from the film and no one would have noticed.

But the biggest flaw in the film is the incongruity of motivations versus actions. Midway through the film, the entire Suicide Squad is let off the hook by a desperate and beleaguered Flagg. He breaks the device that will activate the explosive devices in their necks. They can escape. There is an entire city devoid of people and full of valuables at their disposal. And there is no upside to taking on a maniacal demi-goddess when you can steal enough money to buy an island and disappear.

Besides Flagg, his mook soldiers, and Katana (all of whom are the “heroes”), only two Squad members have legitimate reasons not to run. Deadshot has a daughter and he fears for her life if Enchantress is left loose. And El Diablo is actually seeking to atone for the sins he committed in the past. Croc, Captain Boomerang, and Harley could all just walk away and be completely fine. And none of them do. Instead, they do the Right Stuff walk into certain doom. It feels very forced and punted me out of the story.

Luckily, there are things the writers got very, very right.

There are moments of real poignancy in the film. Deadshot cares deeply about his daughter and seeks to shelter her from the hard reality of his profession. Harley Quinn’s vision of what she wants most near the end of the film shows her living a normal life with a non-clown Joker in a business suit kissing their twins goodbye in the morning before work. Katana talks to the soul of her husband, which she believes is trapped inside her cursed sword. Rick Flagg obviously cares for June and is willing to lay down his life to get her back. El Diablo is so scarred by his abuses of the pyromancy he possesses that he becomes a pacifist and refuses, at first, to use his powers at all. He eventually sacrifices himself to save the other members of the Squad.

Overall, the dialogue is funny and wry. A couple of jokes are a little on the nose, like the reminders that these are the bad guys we’re cheering on, but you’ll laugh a good deal during the film.

The acting was pretty good overall. I think the writing and editing diminished some good performances from some of the cast, but there were several bright spots. Will Smith is in full form as Floyd Lawton/Deadshot. It reminded me a lot of his performances in the Men in Black films. Margot Robbie and Jared Leto are mesmerizing and disturbing to the nth as Harley and Joker. And Viola Davis was perfectly cast as Amanda Waller.

Summary: This film felt like a crossover plot between the various runs of the comics it pulls together. It keeps the pace up, it delivers solid action and genuine laughs, and it leaves plenty of room for encore performances from any or all of the characters. But it tires to do to many things and ends up dropping the ball in some areas.