Bright (2017)

2018 #1
David Ayer | 117 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15

Bright

The director of L.A.-set crime thrillers Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch returns with another L.A.-set crime thriller, only this time with orcs. Yes, orcs. Also fairies and elves and dragons and all that.

But you knew that because you surely can’t’ve missed hearing about Bright these past few weeks. It’s Netflix’s first attempt at making a big-budget summer-tentpole-style blockbuster and they’ve been pushing it hard, but it was savaged by critics, only to then have proven immensely popular with viewers (it’s Netflix’s most-watched original production ever) and had a sequel speedily commissioned.

It’s set in an alternate present day where magic and the aforementioned fantastical creatures all exist. In L.A., humans are your regular run-of-the-mill people, elves are the well-off upper class living in a segregated oasis, and orcs are the poor underclass — a couple of thousand years ago there was a Lord of the Rings-style war to vanquish the Dark Lord, in which orcs picked the wrong side and still pay the price. Nonetheless, the LAPD has recently inducted the first orc cop (Joel Edgerton). When he and his partner (Will Smith) happen across a magic wand, a rare and immensely powerful device, they find themselves hunted by an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) who intends to resurrect the Dark Lord.

Orc of Watch

Bright is, straightforwardly, a mash-up of crime thriller and fantasy blockbuster. Visually and tonally it could be a sequel to End of Watch, were it not for the fantastical creatures. With them in the mix, the plot, creatures, terminology, etc, feels broadly familiar from other fantasy adventures. The unique point, obviously, is in combining these two disparate genres into a homogenous whole. In this regard, Max Landis’ screenplay is a mixed bag: I like the basic concept, and a lot of the ideas within it are decent too, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

For example, the alternate present-day L.A. is imagined just by switching out one real-life race for a fantasy one. So black people become orcs in a simple one-for-one switch. These race analogies are thuddingly heavy-handed, to the point where you wish they hadn’t bothered because then at least they might’ve done it by accident and it would’ve been subtle. Exposition is equally as on the nose, with characters spelling out world history and terminology to each other purely for the viewer’s benefit. It’s a challenge to convey this kind of information to the audience in a fantasy movie, but that’s not an excuse for doing it badly.

OWA - Orcz Wit Attitudes

Ayer seems an apt choice for director — of course he is, because he made End of Watch and Bright really is very similar to that movie. He doesn’t seem to have a complete handle on the material, though. The pace feels all wrong — not terrible, just slower than it should be, like scenes need tightening up, maybe a few more deletions here and there. It feels like it’s been mis-paced in the same way as many a Netflix original series, which makes you wonder if this is a problem with someone who oversees stuff at Netflix rather than individual film/programme-makers. Conversely, it could be because most regular people just won’t notice it — these productions aren’t slow in the way an arthouse movie is slow, they’re just not moving through situations and dialogue at the rate they should; killing time by letting scenes roll on that bit longer than they have any purpose to, that kind of thing.

As the film goes on, it trades this early wheel-spinning for other problems: choppy editing; disjointed storytelling; ill-defined characters and motives. Noomi Rapace is severely underused as the villain — she has so little to do that the role could’ve been played by anyone. Edgar Ramirez isn’t quite so poorly served as an FBI-type elf also on the trail of the wand, but one wonders if someone was already thinking about sequels when shaping these supporting roles. At least Smith and Edgerton make for decent leads, even as they battle against the script’s character inconsistencies and dead-end subplots (for instance, a chunk of time spent on Smith’s home life at the start has barely any baring on later events).

Urban elf

Bright is hampered not by its potential-filled genre mash-up premise, but instead by the filmmakers chosen to execute that idea. They fitfully realise that potential, but it’s diluted by a rash of clichéd or plain undercooked filmmaking. The final result is a long way from perfect, but it’s also pretty far from being the disaster of epic proportions that critical and social media reaction seems suspiciously keen to paint it as (the Cannes-like “Netflix make TV not movies” sentiment is strong in some quarters). It’s a middle-of-the-road blockbuster movie, with some very solid plus points that are let down by some irritating negatives.

3 out of 5

Bright is available on Netflix now and forever.

P.S. Random pointless thing of the week: there are British and American variations of the Bright poster. Spot the difference.

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Suicide Squad (2016)

2016 #178
David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

Suicide Squad

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

That did not end well.

The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

Skwad!

That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

Suicide stars

On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely weren’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

Theatrical Cut
2 out of 5


So, is the extended cut better?

2016 #195a
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

Please sir, can I have some more?

Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

Extended Cut
3 out of 5

And finally, lest you ever forget…

End of Watch (2012)

2015 #111
David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Fury (2014)

2015 #89
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & China / English & German | 15 / R

FuryI don’t believe there are very many movies about tanks — there’s Kelly’s Heroes (which, I must admit, I only know of thanks to ghostof82’s review of the film currently under discussion), and I’ve heard Lebanon’s very good, but no others spring readily to mind. I suppose there are sound production reasons for this, to do with getting bulky movie cameras into tiny spaces and the logistics of choreographing tank battles. The dearth of other films on the same topic automatically gives Fury, about an American tank crew in the closing months of World War 2, something of a leg up in the memorableness stakes.

Specifically, we follow the crew of a tank nicknamed ‘Fury’, commanded by ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt), driven by ‘Gordo’ (Michael Peña), the cannon manned by ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) is the mechanic or something (I’m not really au fait with what jobs there were in a tank, this is just what I managed to glean from the film itself). After the co-driver is killed, this team who have been together for years are forced to accept a new member, Norman (Logan Lerman), who was trained to type 60-words-per-minute and, apparently, not much else. What follows is a mix of exciting action, men-at-war character drama, war-is-hell imagery, and something of a battle for the soul of the innocent new kid.

In some respects, then, Fury is a bit “seen it all before”. The desaturated photography, muddy landscape and slightly-ramshackle military campaign are all very post-Saving Private Ryan, though writer-director David Ayer lends enough of his own directorial flair that it feels more visually distinctive than most Ryan rip-offs. The “battle for the soul” story dates back at least as far as Platoon, but the thing is, it’s fertile ground. Here you’re contrasting men who’ve been fighting this tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.

Battle for the soulMost of the characters exist in a moral grey area, something which some reviewers seem to struggle with. From the off, our ostensible heroes are not shown in a particularly pleasant light, committing or encouraging acts we would view as unconscionable. As the film goes on, it seems like we’re being invited to bond with them, to respect or admire them. I’m not sure that’s a wholly accurate reading of it, though. I think we’re being shown different sides to them — much as Norman is, in fact. At first you see the depths they have reached; then, as you get to know them, you see a little more of their true (or at least their pre-corrupted-by-war) characters. Does this redeem them or excuse their actions? Well, that’s your decision. I don’t think the film is predicated on you coming round to their way of thinking. Without meaning to spoil anything, it’s not as if the meta/karmic world of plot construction lets them off scot-free by the end. Of course, whether we need our focus characters to be clean-cut heroes or whether complex morally-grey/black characters are preferable is another debate.

One of the advantages is that you can never be sure what the characters are going to do. Arguably the film’s strongest sequence comes after the tank column Fury leads has captured a town. The men are given some time off before they advance, which naturally means drinking, destroying German property, and whoring. While Bible reads and Gordo and Grady persuade a woman back to the tank to ‘share’, Wardaddy spies a woman (Anamaria Marinca) hiding at an upstairs window and drags Norman up with him. Inside, they find the woman and her pretty younger cousin (Alicia von Rittberg). As Wardaddy settles in, you have no idea what he’s going to do. He’s being nice, but does he mean it? Where is this going? No spoilers, but the unfolding scenes are among the film’s strongest; and as Wardaddy, Norman and the two women sit down to a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew arrive, kicking off one of the most uncomfortable mealtime scenes outside of a Tarantino movie. Tarantino mealThis is a scene most reviews seem to single out, I’ve since realised, but that’s for good reason: even watching it cold, the powerful writing, direction and performances mark it out as a sequence that transcends the movie it’s in. Again, it’s the unpredictability of what these men might do; the grey area of the guys we’re meant to think are the heroes not always being heroic.

For the viscerally inclined, Fury has much to commend it also. The aforementioned scarcity of tank battles on screen means almost every action sequence feels fresh and unpredictable, and Ayer stages them with requisite excitement and tension, too. The highlight is probably a three-on-one tanks-vs-tank fight that shows the might of the German opposition. The climax, in which the five men hole up in their mine-scuttled tank to take on literally a whole battalion of SS troops, is possibly too over-the-top for a movie that’s otherwise pretty realist in its aims, though even this is reportedly inspired by a real incident. Ayer again makes a fair fist of it seeming plausible, at least.

Beyond that, this is a very brutal depiction of war, to an almost horror movie level at times. Instructed to clean the tank on his arrival, Norman finds half the previous driver’s face lying inside; a man burning alive chooses to shoot himself in the head; various other limbs and faces explode as the movie goes on. Do we need to see such graphic detail? The old fashioned “get hit and fall over” style of being shot has clearly had its day, but do we need more than, say, a spurt of blood? Some would argue not. Some would argue part of the point is this ugliness, this inhumanity — it happens, or happened, and so it should be there; we shouldn’t be glorifying it by sanitising it. Nonetheless, at times Fury is a particularly extreme example of depicting the realism of violence, and some won’t feel up to stomaching it.

No rank in a tankI think Fury is a rather rewarding movie for those that can, though. The fact it provokes debate is no bad thing — I think it’s a misinterpretation to read the film, as some online commenters clearly have, as “these guys do horrible things, but they’re the main characters and the not-Nazis, so I must be meant to like them, so the film is bad”. Well, I suppose it’s not news that some people struggle with cognitive dissonance. On the flipside, I don’t think you’re meant to outright hate them — there’s an element of “the Allies did bad things too, y’know” about the film, but that’s not its sole aim. I think it’s more complicated than that, and, naturally, all the better for it. Even on a more surface level, though, there’s adrenaline-pumping excitement to be had from the well-realised action scenes. It’s a combination that worked very well indeed for me, and if my score errs on the side of generosity then, well, consider it redressing the balance.

5 out of 5

Fury debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.