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Posts Tagged ‘Margot Robbie’

One thing which it strikes me as highly remarkable (it may indeed have been highly remarked upon, but I stopped watching the news nearly two months ago) is the fact that the winner of one of the most prestigious Academy Awards this year – indeed, the most nominated film at this year’s ceremony – was a comic book movie made under the DC marque. Given that not all that long ago, any discussion of a DC movie’s popular or critical reception included words like ‘disappointment’ and phrases such as ‘urgent talks are in progress at the company’, the turnaround they have achieved is startling. I still think Joker is an uneasy splicing together of two concepts that don’t really fit very well, but a billion dollars at the box office and considerable awards success speaks for itself.

So, if a Batman movie without Batman has done so well, what next for DC? How about a Joker movie without the Joker actually in it? I am fully aware that this was not the thought process behind the origin of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – following the sort-of success of Suicide Squad in 2016, this was the film which was selected as the best option for a follow-up – but it could almost look that way. Actually, it looks like a number of things, and one of them is DC’s bad old days, returned with a vengeance.

There are two ideas stitched together in the new movie, as well, but at least this time they seem to have something in common. Birds of Prey is a comic book which started in the mid-1990s, and was basically about a group of masked female vigilantes: the main members of the roster were originally Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of some of these characters, it’s quite understandable). Notably not a member of the team, on the other hand, was Harley Quinn, a sidekick for the Joker who actually originated in one of the Batman TV shows and was then introduced into the comics. Nevertheless, most of these characters are lumped together in the new movie, because – well, they’re all women, aren’t they? Stands to reason they would go together. (This is the level on which the new movie operates, I fear.)

More-or-less disregarding the events of Suicide Squad, the new movie opens with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being dumped (off-camera) by the Joker, which she takes about as well as you would expect from an unhinged, stubbornly wacky homicidal pole dancer. Eventually she gets it together (relatively speaking) and decides to strike out on her own, sending a message by blowing up the chemical plant where both she and her former inamorata had their origins. This has the regrettable side-effect of informing everyone in Gotham City that she is no longer under the Joker’s protection, which makes Quinn a target for a whole army of lowlives and psychopaths, many of whom have very justified grievances against her.

She decides that the best way to save her own skin is to win the protection of a sadistic crime boss known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), by locating a diamond of great plot significance he is after. The stone is currently in the possession of a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) – despite having the same name as someone in the comics, this is essentially a new character. Also mixed up in what is a rather chaotic situation are metahuman nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), tough GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winsome). Could these five very diverse women come together and kick the asses of some presumptuous chauvinist men before the final credits roll?

Well, this is a modern movie gunning for a youth audience, so it would qualify as some kind of miracle if they didn’t, I suppose. I expect a calculation has been made that, given the popularity of Robbie and/or the Harley Quinn character, and factoring in also the fact that a comic book film with an ensemble female cast is likely to prove resonant and successful just now, a movie featuring a load of mostly-female, mostly-very-obscure Batman characters is likely to do well at the box office. This may very well turn out to be the case: I just wish the film itself was less of a mess.

I mean, I still think Joker has been rather over-praised in some ways, but the one thing that Birds of Prey (etc) does exceptionally well is make it look like a serious, heavyweight movie with interesting things to say for itself. The new film, on the other hand, is just garish and frantic and almost totally superficial. Watching it did my head in. I could go on at some length about the disjointed plot, laboured humour and awkward performances from uncomfortable-looking stars. But I won’t.

Instead, I would like to focus on just one moment from the film (and it’s my blog, after all, so I can do whatever I like). This comes quite early on and features Harley Quinn playfully (and graphically) breaking both the legs of another character, because she is drunk and he does something that annoys her. The makers of the film might argue that this sets up a vital plot point (I don’t see it myself), or, more likely, that the victim of the leg-breaking is a bad person who deserves whatever they get. I think this rather misses the point that it still leaves you with a protagonist for this movie prone to brutal, sadistic violence on a whim: the movie even openly admits that its main character is a really terrible person. She’s also really, really irritating: I have no idea whether or not Robbie deserves actual credit for managing to produce such a gratingly irksome performance: my instinct is to say a firm ‘no’.

The other consequence of the leg-breaking (this moment is just emblematic of the amorality which much of Birds of Prey (etc) so enthusiastically embraces) is that it cuts the film’s own legs out from under it when it attempts to be more than just a lurid cartoon. You want us to empathise and identify with Harley Quinn in her moments of despair? No chance, she’s a leg-breaking psycho. You want us to listen while you make some kind of point about gender politics? No way – not only is your point really facile (given the chance, women can shoot men in the head! Yay!), but you seem to think it’s cool and funny to go around breaking people’s legs. What makes you think you have any kind of moral authority worth mentioning?

I could go on and on about the sadistic violence and awkward political positioning which suffuse the movie, but I think I’ve communicated my concerns. In the film’s favour I will admit that it does rattle along pacily enough, and that some of the action choreography is pretty good in a sub-John Wick sort of way. But honestly, the most alarming thing about Birds of Prey (etc) is that it made me think back quite fondly to some of the films DC put out when it was normally Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. This one undoes many months of hard work, and we can only hope it proves to be a blip on DC’s general upward trajectory.

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Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.¬† It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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I would like, if I may, to pose a small question: why is that we routinely refer to Mary Stuart, also known as Queen Mary I of Scotland, as Mary, Queen of Scots? We don’t adopt this slightly quaint style of nomenclature for anyone else – no references to Elizabeth, Queen of English people¬†– at least, not that I’m aware of. I suppose it is simply that it is quite a euphonious title and it has stuck – it may also help to distinguish between Mary Stuart and her regal contemporary Mary Tudor (she of cocktail fame). And, of course, it is an equally good title for books and films about said royal personage, of which there have been many. Along comes another in the form of Josie Rourke’s (yes, you guessed it) Mary Queen of Scots.

The film is, of course, set back in the days when the dangers to the life of a regal personage extended far beyond going out for a drive without putting your seat-belt on: this is the middle of the sixteenth century, with religious war threatening to consume Great Britain. To be honest, the political situation this film deals with is extremely complex, and it only really makes a vague attempt at actually explaining it in detail. On the throne of England is Queen Elizabeth I (English, Protestant, played by someone from Australia), who in order to maintain her authority and independence has decided she cannot marry or produce a child. This is a matter of no small concern for the nobles of England (Protestant), as should the queen die without issue the throne will go to Mary I of Scotland (French, Catholic, played by someone from Ireland). (The two queens are actually cousins, but have never met.) It is decided that, in order to stop Mary from building up her power-base, her rule will be destabilised and she will be kept under control. Naturally, Mary herself has other ideas about this.

I’m only making the vaguest stab at explaining the premise of this movie, partly because it is, as I say, such a complex and subtle situation. There is also the fact that I suspect a large chunk of the sort of people who go to a film like Mary Queen of Scots are ones who… who can I put this without sounding too patronising?… don’t necessarily care that much about the story. They go to a lavish costume drama for the frocks and the language and the comforting sense of knowing more or less what’s going to happen (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; it’s one of the pleasures of genre, after all). And it’s also a fact that anyone with a modest grounding in British history sort-of knows the rough outline of Mary I’s story anyway: came to power, got married and had a baby (thus threatening the Protestant settlement in England), various disputed shenanigans, one dead husband, forced to flee to England and Elizabeth’s protection, nearly twenty years under house arrest, charges (possibly trumped up) of stirring dissent against her cousin, chopping block. Along the way some guy called Rizzo meets a sticky end.

It is a rollicking, if slightly tragic story, and it would be great to see it properly done justice in a big movie, with the details filled in and the characters brought to some semblance of life. However, Mary Queen of Scots is not that movie. You can’t fault its ambition, but even though it mostly limits itself to the period between 1560 and 1567, it still struggles to accommodate all the details without feeling rather rushed and busy. The preponderance of dour bearded men standing around glowering darkly probably doesn’t help much.

Neither does the fact that the director seems to have other things on her mind than simply telling the history, or even just the story. ‘The perfect story for our time!’ declares the publicity for this movie, and I don’t think it’s just because it’s about the female leaders of England and Scotland not getting on. No, I suspect we are being invited to infer that this is a story revealing important universal truths about the treatment of powerful women. The film certainly seems to have a few agendas on the go – both the royal courts in the film seem improbably multi-ethnic (don’t set light to that torch just yet: I’m fully aware that in this period Britain was more diverse than has often been depicted, I’m only saying that the Countess of Shrewsbury wasn’t Chinese), while the implication seems to be that if Mary and Elizabeth had been left to sort it all about between themselves, without having to worry about men going on about the succession and the papacy and a woman’s place and so on, everything would have ended much more happily. (The film supports this by the contrivance of the kind of face-to-face meeting between the two women that there is no historical evidence for.) The men are cruel, or weak, or occasionally both; both queens are to some extent presented as victims. Well, it’s a coherent thesis, I suppose, I’m just not sure quite how well it serves or is served by this particular piece of history.

However, this is not to say that this is an entirely unrewarding movie. It is something of a truism to say that here in the UK we do this sort of thing rather well, and all the frocks and stretches of rolling countryside and surprising hairstyles are present and correct. The acting is also perfectly acceptable – although, in what’s undoubtedly the big showy title role, Saoirse Ronan doesn’t quite achieve full lift-off in the manner you might expect given her reputation. She is good, but not great. Rather surprisingly, the more impressive performance comes from Margot Robbie as the increasingly ravaged Elizabeth. She gets much less screen time and the film does not favour her to nearly the same extent, but she manages to bring something new to her portrayal of this most over-exposed of monarchs.

There is also a degree of fun to be had amongst the supporting cast, which is packed with solid character actors. Guy Pearce turns up as William Cecil, and Simon Russell Beale makes a cameo as (presumably) one of his own ancestors. David Tennant, who has been issued with a fake beard of such luxuriance it could probably conceal a herd of Highland cattle, is on barn-storming form as the zealous preacher John Knox.

So all in all this is still a reasonably substantial movie, it’s just that the various elements never quite cohere into something great. This story is probably just too involved to be brought to the screen without a judicious degree of editing taking place; trying to do the whole thing, while at the same time attempting to insert a contemporary metaphor, was probably never going to produce something entirely satisfactory. Some very good individual elements, though.

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One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

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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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Ubiquity can turn into obscurity very quickly sometimes. Westerns used to be a staple of every studio in Hollywood, one of the primary mainstream genres, but big studio cowboy films are rarer than hen’s teeth these days – the ones that get made more often than not have an art-housey whiff about them. But something even more extreme seems to have happened with respect to the celluloid exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes.

Let’s talk numbers: the first Tarzan film came out in 1918, a mind-boggling 98 years ago, with the jungle lord played by Elmo Lincoln. Since then, twenty actors have put on the loincloth to appear in over fifty movies (including perhaps the best-known dozen starring Johnny Weissmuller). Arthur C Clarke used to claim that Tarzan was the most famous fictional character of all time, and based on sheer bulk of product, only Sherlock Holmes and perhaps Dracula can offer him any real competition.

And yet, since about 1970, it has gone rather quiet in the jungle, in live-action terms at least: a risible soft-core vehicle for Bo Derek in 1981, a lavish but oddly joyless ‘quality’ take on the character in 1984’s Greystoke, and an obscure little 1998 movie with Caspar van Dien. Have audiences finally got sick of Tarzan and all the trappings of his films? Or are there other, more problematic reasons for his disappearance?

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Warner Brothers have gambled nearly $200m on the proposition that people miss Tarzan and want to spend more time with him, and the result is David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan. Yates’ film is set in 1890 and as things get underway our hero (Alexander Skarsgard) has forsworn his jungle home and taken up the title and duties of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, back in the UK (it’s suggested his grandfather is still alive, which inevitably makes one wonder why he’s inherited the title, but let’s not get too pedantic about this: it’s a Tarzan movie, after all). He is fairly happily married to the lovely Jane (Margot Robbie) and seems content.

However, when the King of Belgium extends an invitation for Clayton to visit the Belgian Congo, he is urged to accept it by American diplomat and adventurer George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), as this will get them access to the otherwise-sealed country so they can investigate disturbing rumours of slavery and other crimes. (It turns out Williams was an actual historical person, who ended up buried in Blackpool, bizarrely enough. That doesn’t stop Samuel L Jackson doing his Samuel L Jackson-wisecracking-sidekick routine, of course.) Jane insists on coming along as well.

But, of course, there is more going on than first appears to be the case: the nefarious Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is intent on subjugating the country for his royal master, but needs funds to do so. The chief (Djimon Hounsou) of a diamond-rich area has promised Rom all the money he needs, in exchange for the man who killed his son – Tarzan… (It turns out Rom was also an actual historical person, although one whose actual fate was rather different from the one depicted here. That doesn’t stop Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz-fastidious-psychopath routine, of course.)

Well, it occurs to me that in the past I have only said fairly lukewarm things about David Yates (and when it came to his briefly-mooted Doctor Who movie, some downright sharp ones). ‘Safe pair of hands’ was about the nicest thing I said while he was knocking out the last four Harry Potter films. I suspect that The Legend of Tarzan is not going to make the same kind of world-conquering returns, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid piece of entertainment, nor a rather ambitious film, in its own way, and one for which Yates should be commended.

I think it’s fair to say that, Greystoke and a few others excepted, most Tarzan movies have essentially been rather generic jungle adventures with only a vague connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original stories – the Weissmuller-and-after characterisation as a semi-articulate half-savage bears very little resemblance to the fiercely intelligent character in the novels. The first plus point for The Legend of Tarzan is that it does seem to be trying to respect Burroughs, in spirit if not detail – Skarsgard’s Tarzan is a thoughtful man equally at home in the jungle and the House of Lords, and the mangani apes who raised him are referred to by name, which I think is a first. Set against this is some apparent confusion over which Earl of Greystoke Tarzan is and the decision to set the film in 1890, when the ‘canonical’ Tarzan was only two, which has presumably been taken to facilitate the film’s historical setting, which is crucial to its conception.

If there’s a single reason why Tarzan movies have fallen out of favour in the last thirty or forty years, it’s because the character is perceived as being intrinsically rather problematic. The idea of a white man using his natural gifts and abilities to rise to become master of the African jungle and its inhabitants is, to say the least, awkward in our post-colonial world, where issues of race and superiority are still very delicate fault-lines running through society.

Yates’ movie tries to get round this by making the whole film about colonialism and the exploitation of Africa by white Europeans, hence its attempts to reference the real-life events in the Congo and the inclusion of real-life figures such as Williams and Rom. Pitting Tarzan against the worst face of colonial exploitation should deflect any criticism that he’s just a colonial-exploiter poster-boy himself – that seems to be the theory, at least. Coupled to this is an energetic attempt to present Tarzan and the rest of the supporting cast as thoroughly reconstructed figures – he’s in tune with nature and treats his African friends as equals, while Jane is liberated, capable and terribly feisty, Williams is stricken with guilt over his role in atrocities against Native Americans, and so on. You can never quite get away from the fact that this is a film in which the Congo and its people are saved primarily by a white dude in a pair of shorts, but the film-makers do everything humanly possible to mitigate against this.

And, while doing so, they include nearly all the stuff you really want to see in a Tarzan movie – swinging on lianas, talking to animals, fighting whole mobs of opponents single-handed, and so on. My companion while watching this movie said later that she thought it was all rather far-fetched, but when I suggested she just consider Tarzan to be the first superhero, it all seemed to make a bit more sense to her. On the other hand, Skarsgard doesn’t get to wrestle a crocodile, alas, and the film is a little coy when it comes to the famous ‘Aaaa-eyahh-ahh-eyahh-eyahh!!!’ cry, too.

That said, The Legend of Tarzan manages to take itself impressively seriously – this isn’t a spoof, or at all knowing, or tongue-in-cheek – without appearing quite as po-faced as Greystoke arguably was. I was honestly rather impressed by the whole enterprise – the performances are universally strong, the camerawork is atmospheric, and the script intelligent. It’s a good, extremely watchable adventure movie. And there’s some space left to be filled in by any future movies from this team of film-makers; for once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. If we are still living in a world in which Tarzan movies are a viable proposition – and I must confess to hoping that we are – then this is a very good template as to how they should be approached.

 

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