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Posts Tagged ‘David Ayer’

You usually know what you’re going to get when you watch a David Ayer movie; he’s that kind of film-maker. It’s going to be about guys, being masculine together, usually under trying conditions. Even when there are women in the film they basically act fairly masculine too. It may be that the guys in question are cops (as in Training Day, or SWAT, or End of Watch) or the crew of a tank (as in Fury) or super-powered mercenaries (as in Suicide Squad) – the general emphasis of things is more or less the same. Given that Ayer seems to be a reliably safe pair of hands, with several LA-set cop movies under his belt, you can understand why one of the world’s leading film and TV streaming companies (the name of which rhymes with Get Clicks) would get him on board for its most ambitious original project yet, which is yet another LA-set cop movie. Albeit one with a pretty big difference, as we shall see. The movie in question is called Bright.

Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a somewhat careworn Los Angeles beat cop, coming back on duty after being shot in the line of duty. He blames his injury largely on his inexperienced partner, Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton). Ward doesn’t want Jacoby as his partner, but is uncomfortable with the openly racist attitudes of the higher-ups in the LAPD towards the rookie – for Jacoby is the first Orc to serve as a police officer in the city.

Yup, this is one of those movies. Bright‘s version of the USA is truly multi-racial, with Humans, Orcs, Elves, and other races living side-by-side (there also seem to be Centaurs, Dragons, and Fairies, but the Dwarves and Hobbits seem to be being held back for the sequel). Two thousand years earlier, the Orcs served a dreaded Dark Lord in his attempt to conquer the world, which still fuels prejudice and tension in the present day.

Well, the awkward relationship between Ward and Jacoby soon becomes the least of the cops’ problems, as they stumble upon the scene of a multiple murder and encounter Tikka (Lucy Fry), a traumatised young Elf. Also on the scene is a magic wand, which in Bright’s milieu is the equivalent of a suitcase full of heroin combined with a nuclear warhead. Soon enough Ward and Jacoby are being sought by corrupt LA cops, agents of the US Department of Magic, gangbangers both Human and Orc, and a cult of evil Elves determined to bring about the return of the Dark Lord. But our guys decide not to be chicken when it comes to Tikka, even if it seems highly unlikely they will survive the night…

David Ayer usually writes his own movies, but not this time: Bright is from the pen of Max Landis, previously the scribe of Chronicle, amongst others (he was also involved in the Power Rangers movie, though his script was ultimately not used). I’m not quite sure what to make of the main idea behind Bright, mainly because it manages to be soaringly high-concept and yet curiously unoriginal (the Shadowrun game franchise came up with the notion of fantasy and mythological beings living openly in a modern or near-future US over a quarter of a century ago).

There are a couple of other things about the script of Bright, too, and they’re both to do with the way the film mashes up pure fantasy with gritty realism. Personally, I think there’s good fantasy, where there’s some kind of thought-through underpinning to the whole thing (geography, metaphysics, history, that sort of thing), and – not to put too fine a point on it – bad fantasy, where the writer just makes up anything that takes their fancy and doesn’t worry about whether there’s any coherent basis to it. Bright is, to be blunt, bad fantasy – not just in its talk of magic wands and ‘brights’ (the gifted individuals who can use the wands), but in the simple basis of the story. It’s not just that this is a city which kind of resembles present-day Los Angeles in present-day America. We are informed it really is LA: and there are further references to places and events and things like Russia, the Alamo, and Uber. The world is wildly different in some ways and completely recognisable in others, not because this makes any sense but just because it’s the kind of movie they want to do.

Also, the moment I saw the trailer for Bright I found myself thinking, ‘Hmmm, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes moment incoming’ – that being a movie with an interesting approach to genre-based social commentary, as it essentially restages scenes from the civil rights struggle with apes in the role of African Americans. The allegorical coding in Bright is, if anything, even less subtle: Orcs live in the projects, wear sports clothing and jewellery, run in gangs, and so on. Nevertheless, just so everyone gets the point, Smith gets a line early on about how ‘Fairy lives don’t matter’.

The problem is that none of this sledgehammer social commentary seems to be there to any good purpose, unless Ayer and Landis really are suggesting that African Americans are physically powerful but a bit slow (etc.). I doubt that; it just seems like everyone thought this was a cool idea for a movie and didn’t worry too much about what any of it might mean, or indeed whether it made sense at all.

Now, I have been quite harsh about Bright so far, and the film has generally been picking up less glowing reviews than Get Clicks might have been hoping for (this hasn’t stopped them ordering a sequel, though). However, provided you lower your expectations and put your brain in low gear, there is still some entertaining stuff going on here. Smith and especially Edgerton give rather good performances as the co-leads (whatever its failings as a piece of fantasy, Bright holds together pretty well as a buddy thriller), Ayer directs the action with his usual aplomb, and Noomi Rapace is not bad as the chief Elf villain (finally, the role those cheekbones were born for). When it’s not being ponderously serious, there are some quite good lines, such as when Jakoby tries to persuade Ward they are in the midst of prophetically-foreseen events: ‘We’re not in a prophecy, we’re in a stolen Toyota,’ Will Smith snaps back. It still takes quite a while to properly get going, and arguably outstays its welcome a little too, but hardly objectionably so.

There’s definitely a sense in which Bright is still recognisably a David Ayer movie, but if anything the thing to take away from it (for the director if no-one else) is that Ayer should stick to writing his own scripts in future. It certainly works better as a guys-in-extremis thriller than it does as an actual fantasy movie, simply because it’s all about surface, with no thought given to anything else. I get the sense that Bright exists simply because a lot of people went ‘That sounds cool!’ and thought that was a good enough reason to make to movie. The actual movie strongly suggests that coolness can only take you so far, and no further.

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I’m hearing a lot of talk about ‘superhero fatigue’ at the moment – the notion that somehow people are going to get sick of seeing a new comic-book movie come out, on average, about once every two months. Hmmm, well – having lived through many years when there were no decent superhero movies to speak of, once every two months strikes me as being just about right. You’ll notice I said ‘decent’, because the likes of Steel, Catwoman, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have always been with us. Provided the standard stays high I see no reason why people will stop watching.

That’s a big assumption, though. Quite what dark art Marvel Studios have employed to produce so many movies in a row without a significant misstep I don’t know, but – and I’m aware this assertion is going to be met with bared teeth by some people – if you want to see how this sort of thing probably shouldn’t be done, you can always take a look at DC’s recent movie output, for they haven’t released an entirely unproblematic film since The Dark Knight Rises, four years ago. Still, you can’t fault their determination, for they’re at it again with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

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It sounds like a winning premise: with Superman indisposed (i.e., and spoiler alert, dead) following the end of Batman Vs Superman, and Batman and Wonder Woman off the scene, the US government is concerned about who’s going to pick up the slack if another giant alien monster goes on a rampage. The solution comes from ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – get a bunch of the villains previously defeated by Batman and other superheroes, fit them with remote controlled explosives to ensure compliance, and deploy them as a deniable task force of superpowered operatives.

The collection of nutters thus assembled is led by top soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and includes ace marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), atavistic cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), immortal sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and the Australian villain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose main superpower is being a ridiculous national stereotype.

Others in the US government are uneasy with the idea of entrusting national security to ‘witches, gangbangers and crocodiles’ (they forget to mention ridiculous national stereotypes and people whose only apparent superpower appears to be acting like a homicidal pole dancer), but soon enough a crisis erupts with a giant supernatural entity on the loose in Midway City (Hawkman has clearly been clearly slacking off) and the Squad are rushed into action. But there is inevitably a wrinkle – the Joker (Jared Leto, giving us a very Frank Miller-esque take on the character) wants his girlfriend back, and is drawing up plans to get involved himself…

Is it overstating things to say that DC’s movie division seems to wobble from one crisis to another in a perpetual state of omni-shambles, with virtually every news story about them featuring the words ‘urgent talks are in progress’? Well, maybe. But there were apparently heated discussions after the relative underperformance of Batman Vs Superman, and even before that suggestions that this film was being reshot and reedited to give it more of chance of hooking the audience that made Deadpool such an unexpectedly big hit.

It certainly has the whiff about it of a film that has gone through extensive surgery in the editing suite: key plot beats are critically underdeveloped, and the structure of the film is odd and lumpy, often at the expense of the storytelling. Most of the Squad are given fairly detailed introductions, especially if they’re played by an A-list star, but then just as they’re about to go off on the mission, a brand new member turns up with no introduction at all (and a frankly rubbish superpower) and you just think ‘This guy is clearly just here as cannon fodder who will die in the next ten minutes’ – and he does! Not that the film couldn’t do with losing a few characters – super-obscure superhero Katana turns up, played by Karen Fukuhara, and does pretty much nothing at all. (Fukuhara says she wants to ‘explore the character’s back-story’ in the sequel, and it’s easy to see why: she has virtually no back-story here and is essentially just another national stereotype.) You could even argue that the film would be significantly improved with the Joker completely excised, for he has nothing to do with the main plot and just capers about bafflingly on the fringes of the film.

No chance of that, of course, for DC are clearly fit to bust, such is their desire to get their universe up on the screen in the mighty Marvel manner. I have to say I think there’s something deeply weird about this movie being made at all, at least now. This version of the DC universe hasn’t done a standalone Batman or Flash movie so far, and yet they seem convinced there is an audience dying to see a film about second- and third-string Batman and Flash villains in which the heroes themselves barely appear. I suspect the Joker is probably the only major character in this movie which a mainstream cinema-goer will even have heard of, which is probably why he’s in it.

Then again, there probably is an audience dying to see this kind of film, it’s just a very small audience of comics fanatics. One of the key moments in the development of the modern comic book movie was the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997, which the studio apparently decided was not because it was simply a bad movie (to be fair, I still think it’s better than Batman Forever), but because it managed to alienate the core comic book fan audience. This audience is lovingly courted at great length these days, and you could argue that with Suicide Squad we see a movie made solely to gratify it, and which has started to forget that the mainstream audience is the one which actually turns a film into a genuine blockbuster hit.

Still, given an arguably less-promising premise than that of Batman Vs Superman, David Ayer does an impressive job of keeping the film accessible and entertaining, even if it feels more like a handful of really good moments scattered through a rather generic and predictably murky superhero film. Will Smith earns his top billing, bringing all his star power to bear as Deadshot (the film predictably favours Smith over some of the others), while no doubt Margot Robbie’s game performance will win her many fans. Too many of the other squad members are one-dimensional – I would have liked to see rather more of Captain Boomerang in particular, but they seem to have realised such a wacky character is a terrible fit for a film striving desperately to be dark and edgy, and he barely throws a boomerang or gets referred to by his codename throughout.

In the end, Suicide Squad is a bit of a mess on virtually every level: it’s arguably a bad idea to do this movie at all at this point in time, and its structure and storytelling are both rather suspect, to say nothing of its oddly inconsistent tone (most of the time it plays like black comedy, but some of its most effective moments are when it takes its characters seriously). As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t really work either, being too strongly skewed in favour of certain characters. That said, it’s not an un-entertaining mess, with some amusing and effective moments along the way. I didn’t come out of it wanting to hunt down and exact vengeance on the director, which was the case after Batman Vs Superman. This wouldn’t really qualify as a ringing endorsement under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances: we are in the odd world of DC’s movie output, and they do things differently here.

 

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Not usually a one for war movies, to be honest, and a friend roundly told me off this week for not even having seen Inglourious Basterds (I have been fairly Tarantino-intolerant since about 2004). Then again, the prospect of seeing something which seems to have a genuinely new angle to it, plus some glowing reviews from proper critics, is usually enough to make me consider trotting along to see almost anything. So this week I went along to David Ayer’s Fury.

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Ayer’s movie is set during the death throes of the Second World War, at a time when any potential glamour and nobility the conflict may have had has long since dissipated, and all that remains is a bitter, grubby, futile bloodbath. Brad Pitt plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a veteran soldier in the US Army, whose experiences across North Africa and Europe have made him a lethally effective tank commander with an obsessive hatred of the Nazis.

As the film opens, Collier’s crew have taken a casualty, and the vacancy is filled by very green new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been trained as a clerk rather than a tank driver. Most of the first half of the film is devoted to showing us the reality of war through Norman’s eyes, and a horribly grim reality it is too: practically the first job he is assigned is to scrape the remains of his predecessor out of his seat. The rest of the crew have become thoroughly brutalised by their experiences in the war – Fury is not a movie which makes any attempt to depict the American army as in any way heroic. Any German is a potential target, and in some ways the ‘initiation’ Norman receives from his comrades resembles the indoctrination suffered by child soldiers in more recent wars.

At the centre of this is Collier himself, who would no doubt argue that his own safety and that of the rest of the crew depends on Norman’s ability to do what’s necessary in the midst of battle. He is part mentor and part tormentor, slightly more than just another of the damaged bravos he commands. I must confess that in the past I have nearly always seen Brad Pitt as either an identikit leading man or just a pretty boy juvenile lead, but here his performance is genuinely impressive, and worthy of a film in which every moment, line, and shot seems well-judged to convey the sheer awfulness of the subject matter: the characters are in the midst of a pointless slaughter, and one in which they are personally in the most terrible danger. The script spells it out in a number of memorable lines: ‘We’re not here to do good. We’re here to kill Germans,’ Pitt states tersely, near the start, while later he is in a more philosophical mood: ‘Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.’ The Allies may be days away from an historic victory, but the Nazis are putting up a monumental fight, and their own armour massively outclasses the American tanks: one of the little-known historical facts Fury brings to light is that American tank losses outnumbered Nazi ones by a factor of about five, the brutal truth being that they were content to rely on their massive numerical advantage rather than invest in constructing a new main battle tank capable of taking on the German Tigers on an equal footing.

Perhaps bravely, in its first half the film is relatively light on action, choosing to concentrate on establishing the characters and atmosphere. This it does with a journey through a nightmare landscape: mobs of dispossessed civilians roaming fields, hanged ‘traitors’ on every telegraph pole, burning cities in the distance. Things have reached the point where liberated German women offering themselves to American soldiers has become a joyless ritual for both sides, but one which continues to be acted out nevertheless. One of Fury‘s most daring choices is to pause for what feels like ages in a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which Pitt and his men take advantage of the reluctant hospitality of two young German women. The performances of Logan Lerman and the other actors are also excellent, even – perhaps surprisingly – Shia LaBeouf, who has managed to claw second-billing from the more deserving Lerman.

Soon enough, though, Collier and his men are ordered back into action – their mission, to hold a strategic crossroads and protect the flank of the Allied advance on German. However, luck is not on their side, and they find themselves caught in the path of an advancing enemy column which massively outnumbers and outguns them – do they do their duty, or make a pragmatic withdrawal?

There aren’t a great many surprises at this end of the film, but it’s still thoroughly engrossing stuff, with a couple of absolutely exceptional battle scenes – the best of these is a close-quarters encounter between Pitt’s Sherman and a German Tiger, the two tanks almost like roaring, wallowing steel beasts as they desperately struggle to bring their weapons to bear on each other. The combat sequences are gruelling, but also utterly convincing.

Once again, I am a little surprised that Fury has been released as early in the year as it has: this is not just a blood-and-thunder action movie – though it is supremely accomplished in this department – but one which takes pains to work as a serious drama and commentary on the effects of war: somewhere where even victors can also be victims. This is an excellent film.

 

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