Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December Releases

December Releases

I know, I know- I'm late.  But that doesn't change the fact that there's still a lot going on.  So what do we have?  A couple of animals, a "little" side story, Zootopia meets American Idol, and lots more.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Doctor Strange" casts a spell of wit, charm, and more than a little brains

Movie: Doctor Strange
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swanton, Chiwetel Ejiofor

The latest addition to Marvel’s cinematic juggernaut is a fun and spine tingling homage to the company's resident Sorcerer Supreme, casting a dazzling spell through solid acting and a surprising degree of humor and intelligence that, despite its flaws, is sure to enchant superhero fans both old and new.

In depth
I’ll be honest: this was the one hero movie this year besides Deadpool that I was really looking forward to.  Marvel’s Doctor Strange has always been a personal favorite of mine, a singular studious intellectual in a comic environment so often steeped in muscle-bound machismo and fisticuffs showdowns.  And when I first saw the trailer and the star-studded cast, I can’t say I wasn’t stoked.  Too often I slouch into theaters with my expectations decidedly low, but this time, I threw caution to the wind, confident that my good faith would be rewarded.  And it was, for while Doctor Strange has more than a few foibles to contend with and has been at the center of a bit of controversy thanks to its very specific changes to the mythos, it stands out even in the MCU for its pitch-perfect humor and the surprising depth with which it treats its subject - leaving you to ponder mystical allegories on faith long after the credits close.

Our story begins in what’s now become a staple of Hollywood films - the in medias res, where an unlucky librarian gets unceremoniously offed by rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of magical zealots, before they encounter the eminent Ancient One, played by the stately Tilda Swanton.  What follows is a not-so-subtle display of the film’s dizzying special effects masquerading as a sorcerer showdown, before eventually cutting to the star of the show: Cumberbatch as the brilliant Stephen Strange, a neurosurgical phenom as arrogant as he is talented, living the self-absorbed and self-adulating lifestyle of a scientific rock star.  His house of cards come tumbling down when a bit of on road recklessness leads to a tragic accident, maiming his hands and his career.  Thrown into an existential free fall from which even ex-girlfriend and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) couldn’t shake him, he exhausts both his assets and the patience of everyone around him, chasing one dead end solution after another, before an unlikely source sends him halfway around the world to Kamar-Taj, a tossed salad of 1960s mythologized “Asian” culture tucked away in the Himalayas.  He stumbles into Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), a mysterious stranger who leads him to the inner sanctum of the Ancient One.  But little does he realize that his personal quest for healing has roped him into an endless cycle of interdimensional conflicts, wherein lies the fate of the entire world.

By this point, dedicated fans and casual moviegoers alike have come to expect a lot from the MCU - namely, smart writing, high-octane action, and strong pacing with likable characters.  And Doctor Strange is no exception, gifted with a solid cast and loads of humor.  Cumberbatch is, as expected, a great choice for Strange, grasping the nuances of the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, but never pushing him past the point of likability.  Actors tend to slap down the flaws of a narcissist in too clumsy a manner, but Cumberbatch went for the slow burn instead, starting off as a committed if justifiably proud surgeon, before the accident lifts the veil to reveal just how wounded he is on the inside - and he pulls it off without a hitch.

But honestly, we shouldn't dwell too much on the characters - they aren't the main source of the movie’s strength, which lies largely in the smart themes and sharp humor permeating the whole thing.  For one, Doctor Strange refreshingly doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Whether it’s our main boy's muddled attempts to interact with the Sanctum’s impassive Beyonce-loving librarian (Benedict Wong) or his wrestling with an overly affectionate cape that’s chosen him to be its master, most of the scenes - even the serious ones - are graced with a delightful wit that never feels forced or out of place.  Compared to the DC Extended Universe’s mournful and self-important snooze fests, or even the mythos baggage Marvel properties have started to accumulate with some of its long runners, Strange is a nice breath of fresh air.

But the truly amazing thing is how Derrickson managed to combine this humor with a surprisingly intelligent nod towards faith and moral complexity.  It's no Stoic discourse, to be sure, and the jury's still on how much of it was actually intended; however, the largely PC-influenced changes the directing team made from the source opened the door to some pretty relevant topics in this day and age.  Stephen Strange may be an insufferable tool in many ways, but he’s mentally flexible and quite comfortable grappling with moral complexity, especially if it helps the greater good.  Most other characters are defined by how they respond to this basic religio-ethical tension.  Mordo starts off as the stereotypical magical guide, but his fanatical commitment to the Ancient One and the ways of the sorcerer reveals a dangerously narrow view of the world.  Kaecilius blames his start of darkness (through an unbelievably verbose chunk of Villain Exposition) on a revelation tantamount to a young religious neophyte discovering church hypocrisy for the very first time.  The Ancient One herself is a bit of a cypher, shedding the straight-forward “old Asian master” persona in the source material for a more nuanced and conflicted character - one whose own dark secrets rest at the heart of the plot.

And in the end, subsuming characterization for the sake of the narrative was an excellent decision.  Aside from Strange and the hilarious straight man antics of Benedict Wong, the characters stand out more by their service to the plot than by their ability to drive it.  Again, this is in sharp contrast to the current trend in Avengers centered story lines, so wrapped around the iconic portrayals of a few key characters that it’s sometimes hard to tease out the plot underneath.  And it works; while I normally warn against sacrificing a strong character for a plot utility, that’s only because it so rarely gets done right.  But Derrickson and co. held it together, and the results speak for themselves.

Not everything is all spells and spectacle in Doctor Strange’s magic garden, of course.  Christine Palmer is entirely superfluous, and a tremendous waste of a good actress.  The character herself isn’t bad, but she accomplishes little to nothing by her presence besides being a prop for Strange’s existence, and somehow manages to embody the worst of what Ben Child, writing for The Guardian, calls Marvel’s “girlfriend problem” - without even being a love interest in the traditional sense.  Beyond that, the special effects were a big “ho-hum,” running the gamut from wildly gaudy screen-bending effects to cheap magical visuals resembling some junior artist’s first-time fumble through Blender.  Also, although the beginning up to his arrival at Kamar-Taj is perfectly paced, thereafter the film gets wonky with our sense of time, glossing over parts of his training that could have been extended to better effect, or letting large swaths of the cast disappear in many fights scenes like this was a Mortal Kombat movie.

But besides that, and a little inconsistency on how badly damaged Strange’s hands are supposed to be, I was quite pleased with this rendition of the "other" good Doctor.  On most levels, it’s the nicely balanced blend of action, story, and likable characters that define the MCU so well, and places it leagues above DC’s paltry offerings so far.  Most of its problems are not show stoppers by any stretch, and the generous amounts of humor and thought more than make up for them.

Grade: B+  

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

November Releases

November Releases

Another month, another parade of fine flicks, top-drawer television, magnificent music, and a bevy of other entertainment tidbits that marks the full onset of the autumn rush.  The big story right off the top, of course, is Marvel's latest cinematic addition, Doctor Strange.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a major movie draw no matter the film, and seeing him take on the mantle of one of Marvel's most powerful heroes is no doubt a dream come true for many fans.
But to a huge swath of gaming fans, the biggest news this month is the release of the latest installments of the seemingly-immortal Pokemon series, Sun and Moon.  Set in the picturesque Alola region (take a wild guess what it's based on) the games will see a return of some features introduced in previous generations - like Mega Evolution - along with a few new tricks, like major redesigns for Pokemon Centers and the mysterious "Z-Moves."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Frequency

Show: Frequency
Genre: Sci-fi detective thriller
Network: The CW
Premiered: October, 05, 2016

Show business is the ultimate necromancer.  Its ability to dig through the media grave stones and resurrect something in a new form is great enough to make any D&D enthusiast blush in envy.  Take Frequency, for example - I’m sure if someone told me at the beginning of the year, “Hey!  Remember that relatively obscure time travel-ish movie from the early 2000s?  Well, guess what's coming to the CW!” I would have laughed them out of the room.  Nothing highlights the comically derivative and stale fester stew comprising much of entertainment media quite like a good ole' fashioned ill-fitting television remake.  But Frequency surprised me; it didn't exactly knock my socks off, sure, but the intriguing detective mystery at the heart of it stands firm all on its own, even if the time-bending plot leaves you with eyes glazed over.

Detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton Hist) of the NYPD has an ideal life from the outside: a loving mother, a respectable career, and a charming and dedicated boyfriend interested in taking their relationship further.  But underneath the sparkle is a woman haunted by the death of her father twenty years ago.  Officer Frank Sullivan (Riley Smith) was killed during an undercover sting gone wrong, amidst rumors of “getting in too deep,” with the end result drowning his daughter in years of pain and resentment.  But one night at a family gathering in the old home, Raimy finds her father’s old ham radio and somehow gets a direct line to 1996, just days before his untimely death.  After clearing the air about her unresolved issues and confirming that her father remained one of the good guy to the very end, the two cops set about making a brighter outcome this time around.  And they succeed, but in the process create an even bigger personal tragedy for them both in the future.  Now, father and daughter must collaborate across time and uncover the mystery they helped set into motion.

The Good
Frequency takes the conventional Sci-Butterfly effect and gives it a buddy cop feel - two genres that by this point have grown horribly sour, but in this case somehow blend together quite well.  The talented actors on screen, of course, have a role in this; Peyton List portrays the tough-as-nails Raimy competently, but the real star here Riley Smith, storming in with an intuitive and believable performance as a conflicted detective just trying to make sense of a life spiraling deeper into the Twilight Zone.  This gets expanded as the episodes pile on, throwing in familial conflict and probably the most realistic depiction of a family struggling to readjust to normal life after an extended sting I've ever seen.  The premise sets up an intense, cat-and-mouse dynamic that's constantly in flux due to changing information from the past, which would make an otherwise dreadful and predictable plot have any number of unexpected twists and turns.  But the best part for me is undeniably the music.  Hearing "Wonderwall" blare up along with other alt rock favorites from the mid 90s drummed up the nostalgia beat, and really fit well with the heavy but hopeful atmosphere of the series.

The Bad  
Time travel is always an absolute pain to get across when the science won't cooperate; time traveling radio transmissions are even worse.  Although the show admirably hand waves any attempt to explain the warped reality behind its premise, it still leaves us with a time plot that completely smashes the Good Doctor's timey-wimey ball into a convoluted pile of timey-wimey paste.  It gets worse as Raimy, upon altering the time stream, can somehow remember both her old timeline, and the new one she created simultaneously - something which makes no friggin’ sense whatsoever, and gives you a prelude to an aneurism just thinking about it.  It’s only a problem when it gives the characters a plot-induced touch of idiocy in order to preserve the drama - which is, unfortunately, more times than I’d like to count.  This really is the show’s only weakness, but it’s a pretty damn big one if left unchecked; you can get anyone to wander through your time-induced plot maze as long as it doesn’t overwhelm them too much, but when it interferes with their ability to follow along and piece things together, we have a problem.

The Ugly
 Raimy is a bit of a jerk with a heavy chip on her shoulder, and comes off as pretty unlikeable the first episode or two.  But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There’s a method and a reason behind all of her madness, especially considering that pretty much her entire world went to hell in a handbasket in the literal blink of an eye. It doesn’t excuse her behavior, especially her continued antagonism and disrespectful attitude towards Frank, but it does lay the groundwork for some semblance of character development - so long as the writers don’t screw it up.  Likewise, I hope Frank eventually grows enough of a spine to silence Raimy when she goes on her tirades of belittlement.  Much as I love his warm and confused demeanor, he takes it on the chin from her entirely too much.  It’s fine for the time being, since he's dealing with an obviously bitter adult daughter who’s a perfect stranger to him in every important way, but watching him get talked down to on a constant basis will get real old, real fast.

Tune In or Tune Out?
Tune in - for now.  The show’s got more than a few squeaky wheels, but it's a solid ride more or less.  I really hope that this is the only season we get, since I can't imagine following this series through another time-altering adventure after this.  Time will tell if the warped time plot gets too insane, but the detective mystery buried under all the sci fi fluff is decent enough to tune in for.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

October Releases

October Releases

I was a little out of commission last month thanks to my own projects, but now I'm back, and just in time for...well, not a whole lot this October, to be honest. Or at least, not in the box office; the fall tv lineup is finally gathering some momentum after a ho-hum showing in September, returning some old favorites, like Arrow and The Flash, with a fresh face or two along for the ride.

For you fans of the Bethesda WRPG franchise juggernaut, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is coming to PS4, Xbox and PC by the end of the month.  You may now once again march across the snowy throat of Tamriel, slaying dragons with serious graphical improvements.  And the best part?  Mod support has apparently been added for console owners, which means you no longer need to sell your soul to the PC Master Race in order to enjoy the near-infinite flexibility that comes with modding.





See you at the movies!  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On "Alien," "Aliens," and "Isolation"

On playing Alien: Isolation, I always enjoyed watching gamers with little or no familiarity with the movies marvel at the decidedly creepy atmosphere, or storm in with a first-person shooter mentality before quickly realizing how hazardous that is to their survival.

The blame for this lies at the source; Isolation took most of its inspiration from the first Alien movie, which is more akin to a horror flick than a sci-fi adventure.  There, the alien was implacable, mysterious, and vaguely malevolent; it was less a hostile creature than an abominable manifestation of our fears, sexual and otherwise.  This was Ridley Scott’s original vision, one embodied in the uncomfortable patchwork of rape and ruin iconography that is H.R. Giger’s xenomorph.

On the other hand, most of the media in the franchise take their inspiration from the worthy sequel, Aliens.  Like Starship Troopers, James Cameron's spin on the whole thing tapped into another symbolic fear - that of the Imperial Swarm, an antagonistic alien empire driven by instinct to seed and consume any and all worlds it encounters, with whom neither communication nor negotiations are possible.  Headed by an intelligent queen and staffed by powerful, bloodthirsty drones, such a “society” waves the banner of endless war: humanity is bound to an eternal battlefield against a relentless and incomprehensible enemy, with destruction - ours or theirs - the only way out.

This dual perception of the xenomorph - of preternatural malevolence vs. the enmity of eternal conflict - is the main dividing point between the first and second movies, and for years most video games followed the Cameron route, pitting the ubiquitous Colonial Marines and their trusty pulse rifles against the Queen’s drooling swarm.  I can understand this, since the hard-scrabble battles between bugs and bros as depicted in Aliens is a tad more photogenic than the slow-moving horror vibe of the original film.  

And this rarity is what makes the Isolation experience for me that much sweeter.  The fear from Isolation is completely unlike the jump scare to firefight set up of Colonial Marines, or any of the Alien vs. Predator games.  It is something more primal - the fear of being hunted; and not by some dumb brute, but an entity designed to be smarter, stronger, and more persistent than anything we’ve seen in the franchise for years.  And it is completely unkillable, shrugging off shotgun blasts and even spouts of fire that would have killed it dead in any other game, but are now temporary irritations at the very worst.  It almost had me believing that the blasted thing really was supernatural in some way.  And while I know Creative Assembly didn’t include a Queen for budget reasons, I was glad they didn’t all the same.  In Scott’s opus, the xenomorph was a terrifying blank from cradle to grave, with a creepy life cycle revealed only in the Director’s Cut. The presence of a Queen, like that of the Marines, would have veered away from the horror tone and into familiar Cameron territory.

Despite some of the mixed reviews the game received, I for one was quite happy with the mood and feel of the end result, and hope that we’ll get another trip to the more horrific side of the Alien franchise somewhere down the line.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

September Releases

September Releases

Hmm...I think August and September got their wires crossed somewhere up the line.  This month's pretty dry on the movie side of things, a pretty rare occurrence for this time of year.  There are a few pinch hitters in the second half of it, like Storks and the...unexpected adaptation of Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children; but beyond that (which isn't much, really) and the mandatory limited release gems you'd be lucky to catch, it's probably going to be a pretty quiet box office.

Television is much the same, with mostly a lot of season premieres of long-runners.  Oh, and a new Lethal Weapon series coming out on the 21st.  Yay.

...Might be a good time to pick up that book again - you know, the one you told yourself you were going to finish a few months back, but never did?  Just saying.





See you at the movies!  Maybe... 


Monday, August 22, 2016

Manga (Retro)review: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha

(WARNING: This review/analysis contains spoilers.  You have been warned)


Maoyuu Maou Yuusha: 'Kono Ware no Mono to Nare, Yuusha yo' 'Kotowaru!'
Writer: Touno Mamare
Artist: Ishida Akira
Status: Ongoing

A random trip through the Interwebs has turned up yet another fascinating little series: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, an economic treatise disguised as a fantasy manga, but so much better than that sounds.  I knew nothing about it before a few days ago, so I’m pretty late to a party that’s apparently been going on for a little over six years.  But this smart, witty, and optimistic manga really stuck with me, and deserves, I think, a worthy review - even as it also displays a few of the pitfalls that come in making “philosophical” fiction.  (Footnote: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha is a pretty expansive franchise, encompassing a light novel series, an anime, and several manga titles all with different artists.  I choose the adaptation running in Comp Ace Magazine, drawn by Ishida Akira and distinguished by the ridiculously long subtitle above, as it’s one of the more popular and accessible versions).

Plot Synopsis
In a medieval fantasy world embroiled in a decades-long conflict between demons and humans, a lone Hero of extraordinary power battles through the demon defenses to face, he assumes, his destiny: a climactic showdown with the evil Demon King, impaling the foul beast on the end of his blade and finally bringing this war to a close.  However, this standard fantasy script gets flipped when the Demon “King” turns out not only to be a large-bosomed cutie with hardly a malevolent bone in her body, but also a highly intelligent economist who calmly and firmly lays out all the political, social, and economic reasons why killing her won’t end the war -  and may actually lead to all sorts of nasty repercussions.  Our Hero finds his entire scaffolding of heroic fantasy tropes stripped away by her data and relentless logic, until she finally makes him an offer: to become “hers” (and she, “his” in exchange) and help her implement a series of innovations to ensure lasting change and peace for both humans and demons - beyond the temporary and destructive benefits of endless war.  Although Hero initially turns her down (funny note: the daunting subtle roughly translates to “Become mine, Hero!” “I refuse!” in homage to this exchange) he’s considerably more open-minded than your run-of-the-mill fantasy sword-swinger, and finds himself swayed by her facts and his own sense of righteousness.  With their “contract” now sealed, the pair return to the human world where, aided by Demon King’s - ahem, Queen’s - servant Head Maid and Hero’s former companion Female Knight (notice a naming trend?) they set about a plan to effectively save the world from its own worst impulses.

The story drew me in right from the start; I am a major fan of deconstructive fiction done well, and this series manages to tear down a whole slew of not only bog-standard fantasy tropes, but a few shounen manga conventions as well.  Our two protagonists are cut from very different molds than what’s typical in the genre, and in their own ways overturn many expectations.  Demon Queen is, quite frankly, brilliant, and though physically frail with a sweet and childish side, proves to be formidable in the arts of negotiation and verbal jujitsu.  Hero, too, is much more than he appears; though arguably the strongest being in existence, he recognizes his own impotence before an enemy he can't hack or slash, and is quick to support his consort in all her goals, even going so far as to proclaim her the real hero of the story.  More characters get added - each, however inconsequential at first, eventually becoming important additions to the narrative, often getting their own moments in the spotlight and driving home the central message that it's the small changes, enacted in the minds of others through trust and learning, that have the biggest impact in the long run.  But the real wallop of the story comes from the amount of intellectual firepower they packed into it, easily apparent in the early arcs as the Queen's plans are just getting underway.  Diligent anime fans often compare Maoyuu to another well-known light novel series - Spice and Wolf, which shares the same basic premise of supernatural girl hooking up with human guy to lend her wisdom in socioeconomic matters.  But instead of focusing on microeconomics and the interaction between its two leads like that series, Maoyuu tackles the wider world of macroeconomics, and how they influence and are influenced by political forces.  The author really knows his stuff, and through his avatar Demon Queen explains (sometimes in painstaking detail) how certain real-world innovations, like new crops or new tools for education, can cause dramatic changes.  In a way, this whole manga can be thought of as a massive thought experiment: what would happen if you suddenly introduced potatoes, corn, the printing press, and notions of individual free will and intrinsic rights - all things we take for granted in the modern world - into a feudal society where toil, famine, ignorance and violence are everyday realities.

Still, the story at times smacks a bit of historical teleology or even triumphalism, warping the manga's biggest strength into its greatest weakness.  Also, like most works aiming to inform and enlighten, Maoyuu often falls into the standard dilemma of too much telling and not enough showing.  This was particularly painful during the first few arcs, where the prose borders on the didactic, and the reader’s bogged down with entire chapters of dry economic explanations - so dry, in fact, that despite my own personal love of economics and numbers, I sometimes skipped a few pages, certain I was missing nothing of real substance to the story.  This gets better as it progresses, though there remain certain points when Touno is basically preaching to us.  Still, the strong character development and undeniably smart ideas running behind this series more than make up for the occasional dips into pretentiousness.   
Rating: 9/10

It’s probably unfair to critique the art as if it pertained to the series as a whole, since there are so many different versions, but just speaking of Ishida’s penmanship, I found the overall effect somewhat lacking.  The art wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; however, it looked pretty sloppy in how it was put together.  This is hardly noticeable in the beginning, when the cast is still small and the “action” centered on the bureaucratic gymnastics of merchant guilds and church factions.  But as more characters of significance appear, Ishida's generic style makes it harder to tell some of them apart - not helped at all by his thought bubbles being all over the place on some pages.  The action scenes were also lackluster, though that gets an easy pass; Maoyuu tends to focus on strategic maneuvering in combat rather than dazzling feats of individual fancy, so you don't feel like you're missing out on much.   Moreover, Ishida is great at displaying the two sides of this story - the serious economic drama on the one hand, and the light-hearted romantic comedy on the other - and really brings out the humor and warmth in what could easily have been just another gloomy bundle of pretense.
Rating: 7/10

There's a lot more to this universe than can be covered in my review.  While you can argue that the “innovations” introduced in the manga mirror the real world too closely - and hence, feel derivative or even lazy - it doesn't change the brilliance of the execution, nor the originality of the premise itself.  If you’re looking for a fine piece of literature that will make you think and give you a good laugh at the same time, you can do a lot worse than this.
Total: 16/20 = B

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Suicide Squad" is an uncoordinated mess, but it does have its bright spots

Even the movie poster looks spliced together

Movie: Suicide Squad
Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto

Hopelessly muddled and long on exposition, DC’s latest brick in their rushed attempt to build a cinematic universe from scratch falls short of most expectations, although surprisingly competent performances from Margot Robbie and Will Smith throw out a lifeline as the poor writing and wasted potential of its characters tempt you into reaching for a noose.

In depth:
So DC Comics has recently marshaled up the gumption to set out a game plan for an expanded cinematic universe - despite sporting a roster largely unknown to the big screen compared to its rival, and despite having its forays into that territory mostly slammed at the box office (with maybe one notable exception).  But despite the setbacks, a lot of us held on to the hope that Suicide Squad would be different - that it would redeem DC in the nihilistic fires of El Diablo - offering, perhaps, a few shades of Deadpool along the way.  And, I suppose, for many movie fans, it does.  But to the rest of us, Ayer’s grimy, ugly stain of a superhero film is no Deadpool.  While the cast is undeniably talented and the film offers up occasional peaks of humor and cool action, it’s still a choppy mess, a muddled fustercluck that's but a fraction of the movie it could have been, wasting its A-list actors on a thinly-written hack piece that apparently left its soul on the cutting room floor.

Suicide Squad picks up where Batman vs. Superman ended: the death of Earth’s strongest hero not only left a void in the world’s spandex quota, but also opened up a serious question on how and when to control these “metahumans,” who seem immune to pesky little things like the laws of physics, or city-wide body counts.  Enter Amanda Waller, DC’s resident sociopath in the name of national security, answering the call with the poorly thought-out solution of using expendable baddies to police the world’s supers.  Played by the talented Viola Davis, she spares us of the chore of sitting through anything interesting by giving an expository info dump for the first  20 minutes of the movie on every bad egg comprising her proposed team: Deadshot (Smith), the ace sharpshooting hitman with a soft spot for his daughter; the Joker’s deranged girl-toy, Harley Quinn (Robbie); disfigured man-eating mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Aki Akinnuoye-Agbaje); Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a bank robbing bogan with...a boomerang; and last but not least, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a pyrokinetic hombre who dedicates half of his lines to reminding us that he is, in fact, Latino.  The remaining non-criminals of Waller’s task force include Joel Kinnaman as Spec Ops field marshal Rick Flagg, his sword-wielding bodyguard Kitana (Karen Fukuhara), and Cara Delevingne as Dr. June Moone, an archeologist possessed by an angry evil spirit who can be summoned at will.  And here is where the trouble begins, for although Waller chose “The Enchantress” to be part of her unit as well, the spook’s harboring some serious beef with the human race for imprisoning her soul in a clay doll.  She breaks loose, and sets about on her obligatory world domination/destruction plan.  Now it’s up to Waller’s band of murderous misfits and their straight-laced handlers to save the day.

Let me say right off the bat that if there is one thing I despise in any movie, no matter the genre, it's  long-winded exposition - and Suicide Squad struck that nerve like hammer.  I'm not talking about exposition integrated into the story somehow, either through a flashback, or maybe an in-movie play.  No, I mean the "Let's have a seat and I'll explain everything about the plot" kind of exposition. That type is the Devil itself, violating the sacred Show Don’t Tell rule of fiction, and is just flat-out boring to go through.  Twenty minutes is a long time to sit there just listening to someone prattle off details of a person’s life - time better spent on something else, like moving the plot forward.  Deadshot’s dossier is a perfect example of how the movie screws this up; we’re not only given a brief (and admittedly humorous) look at him doing what he does best, but we're also force fed his relationship with his daughter as we're walked through the details of his capture - complete with extended Batman cameo, so we can all bask in his awesomeness.  Most of that could have been implied, just to give us something to explore as the film progresses, but instead it's practically spelled out in FLASHING NEON LETTERS, leaving me, at least, with little reason to tune in when the action eases up and we’re forced to deal with these characters as actual human beings.

This mistake gets repeated with nearly each character and throughout the film, and delves into other no-nos of storycrafting that really should have been avoided.  Every time a new character is introduced, they come with a backstory-flashback combo designed to spill everything about them before they even get a chance to do anything.  As a method of character development, this falls somewhere between amateurish and GTFO, and I kid you not, it annoyed me to such a degree that I was actually tempted to walk out of the theater.  But more than a cinema sin, this highlights just how choppy Suicide Squad is as a final product.  The movie has a massively edited look, like it’s gone through more facelifts than an aging supermodel, and I can’t fight the feeling that a lot had to be sliced away just to make it all work.  While the action flowed pretty well, the scenes in general were held together by duct tape, with sudden breaks that felt jarring and discombobulating.  That’s not enough in and of itself to make a terrible movie experience, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it sure as hell doesn’t lend any confidence that the filmmakers knew what they were doing from the start.

But the biggest heartache comes from what they did, or failed to do, with its cast.  Read that list again, and tell me it doesn’t sound like a virtual dream team of who’s who on the Hollywood A-list - and Jai Courtney.  But the movie does almost nothing with them, with two notable exceptions.  Will Smith was surprisingly adequate as Deadshot - “surprising” in the sense that, despite his obvious acting chops, he has a major Achilles heel when it comes to antiheroes, with a bad habit of reverting to his nice-guy self on screen.  This time, though, he...well, he pretty much does the same thing, but unlike Hancock or Focus, it doesn’t derail the character or feel out of place.  Smith’s gotten much better over time with how much he lets his basic humanity leak into his characters, and this time, it definitely pays off.  But though Deadshot’s the designated glue character in this rickety boat, the real captain of this ship is the pale-skinned terror in hotpants, Harley Quinn.  I had my initial doubts that Robbie could pull this off; playing Quinn requires a certain manic energy that I felt the Aussie actress lacked.  But despite the gratuitous fanservice and her complete inability to pick ONE accent and stick to it, Robbie gives a brief but powerful panoramic of the clown girl’s complex psyche, working within the sad limits of the film’s painfully restrictive writing to bring out at least a little of what makes Harley tick.  It wasn’t as definitive as Ryan Reynolds and his masterstroke in Deadpool, but it’s enough to lift this otherwise broken buoy of a movie a little bit above the tide.

But the above two cast standouts really underline how underdeveloped the rest of their mates are - and unlike most movies, it has little to do with the acting chops on display.  Smith and Robbie stand out in their own minor ways despite Suicide Squad’s writing, not because of it.  The rest of the crew were barely given a moment’s chance.  Despite his much vaulted publicity in the trailers, Jared Leto’s Joker debut was little more than a combined 15-minute cameo of minor importance.  The rest of the Squad fared little better; Akinnuoye-Agbaje was straight-jacketed by layers of make-up and a guttural growl that made his few lines unintelligible.  Hernandez gave me Konnan flashbacks from WCW, and I half-expected him to shout “Arriba la raza!” at any minute. It’s sad that while he’s aiming for the whole “redeemed gangster” schtick, he ends up in an even bigger stereotype tar pit than if he’d just played a straight-up thug.  Almost without question, if any of the actors came off as tired, boring, or just plain offensive, it's because the series of disjointed scenes trying to pass itself off as a movie rarely gave them the opportunity to be anything else.

Which isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom.  There are a few nice action scenes scattered throughout the film, even if they culminated in an astoundingly lame final fight that seriously tried it with a forced Power of Friendship angle (among sociopathic super-criminals, mind you) and abused THE HELL out of the slowmo cam.  There were more than a few moments of humor that worked -  thanks to Robbie's stellar Quinn and Smith's natural charm - and were sorely needed in a budding cinematic universe that so far takes itself waaay too seriously.  But on the whole, Suicide Squad is a temple to mediocrity - one by design instead of accident.  The filmmakers threw this movie together haphazardly, forcing relationships and holding it in place with the flimsiest of excuse plots.  It might have been better to allow the crew to develop over another movie or two, filling in their roles and coming together in a more gradual way.  But rushing to the finish is apparently DC’s current mindset, and while Suicide Squad is a lot more fun than anything else they’ve put out this year, it still fell far short of both its hype and our expectations.

Grade: C-