Suicide Squad (2016) - poster

Suicide Squad (2016) - poster

“Worst. Heroes. Ever.” reads that tagline for DC “dark action epic” Suicide Squad. Except: really, the film is like any other “underdog hero” film – of which we’ve seen precisely eleven thousand – and there is nothing really new here – and a whole lot of old music hits and hot babes trying to convince you that you’re having a great time.

Boasting a feel-good soundtrack, an energetic production design, and a charismatic cast, Suicide Squad nevertheless performed rather poorly with critics. I think everyone’s just cranky over the superhero film scene, personally. But hey – superhero films are hard to do. Can you make the die-hard comic fans happy, in a two-hour runtime – especially considering the very retcon nature of the genre? Can you make the story compelling to viewers who don’t care about the sacred history of the graphic novels and just want a good action story? Even if you could do either – can you do both simultaneously?

Briefly, for plot: top brass baddie Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) gets permission to put together a group of criminals – most with supernatural/superhero powers, and a handful of sociopathic and skilled thugs – to pull off naughty black ops. The concept is easy: the squad are a bunch of dirtbags who no one will miss if they have to be killed. They are held hostage by money, blackmail, that sort of thing. Oops! One of the supernatural baddies gets loose. Waller sends the others after it. Meanwhile, will this ragtag bunch of creeps find their humanity and band together against all odds? Why, yes. Was anyone wondering?

The most talked about controversy in the film (besides the comic fans that hate what was done with it) is that of the character Harley Quinn (one of only four women in the film’s important roles). Played with a lot of zeal by Australian Margot Robbie, Harley is by turns defended as a legitimate action character in her own right, and decried as being a really gross actualization of an abusive relationship (with the Joker), as well as overly and unfairly sexualized. I agree with all the above – and although I was pleased to see Harley get more lines than I thought she might, it was still really grody how many times the camera cut to lingering shots of her bod. (Imagine how ludicrous it would feel if every five minutes we were subjected to Will Smith’s buns in hot pants providing the, “be-BOOP!” punchline to sassy jokes!).

Suicide Squad (2016) - still

As awesome as Harley is at times, this film relies on silly tropes where women are concerned. No one is surprised, I know (especially considering an all-male massive writing team). Besides Davis and Robbie we have a witch-lady thingie (Cara Delevingne) and stoic assassin Katana (Karen Fukuhara) – a Japanese woman once again subject to a role as near-silent egregious window dressing. There’s not a covered midriff in sight. Maybe they spent too much licensing the music? I hope our ladies weren’t too cold.

As for the rest of the players, we have a decent cast diversity – they’re not all white guys! – and a great deal of acting talent. Unfortunately, the film’s writing and plot don’t hold our anti-heroes to best advantage. Will Smith and Joel Kinnaman (as Deadshot and Rick Flag, resp) play exactly the kind of guys you think they’re gonna, with exactly the story arc you guess at. Jared Leto‘s Joker is saved up a bit because you know they’re going to trot him out a lot more in a later film. And while his performance annoyed people, the guy’s got a tough act to follow as so many still miss Heath Ledger’s turn as the character. Jay Hernandez‘ role of Diablo, despite getting short shrift in the storyline/character department, was nevertheless another charismatic entry in the ensemble.

So, I sure didn’t hate Suicide Squad as much as so many others seemed to. If I have one regret, it’s that I’d seen most of the film’s good scenes (and fun characters), through one avenue or another. The film would have been more fun had I known nothing going in. And in any case, it was a lot more enjoyable than DC’s Batman v Superman (2016), a dour violence-fest with little going for it.

Deadly Prey (1987) - poster

 

Deadly Prey (1987) - poster

Despite incredibly promising poster art, Deadly Prey is a rather lukewarm effort that combines “The Most Dangerous Game” (the 1924 short story by Richard Connell) and a knockoff of 1982’s First Blood (the original John Rambo film) – and hopes those two premises are enough for a 90 minute runtime.

I’ll leave you to decide.

In the plot Danton (I forget his first name), a happily-married suburbanite who sleeps in a waterbed and wears weightlifting leisurewear, steps outside one morning to put the garbage out. He is ambushed by a van full of thugs who sport him to a secret paramilitary base within stone’s throw of Los Angeles (?!?), take off his shirt (why?), and then force him to run around the woods while they hunt him for practice. Except it turns out they by-coincidence TOTALLY kidnapped the main honcho Hogan’s ex Nam-buddy, and he’s really super good at murdering people and surviving out in the woods eating worms (true story, and sadly we do get some real live worm-eating in the film).

Deadly Prey (1987) - still

Directed by David Prior (who helmed several exploitation 80s dramas) and starring his brother Ted, Deadly Prey isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” because it is bereft of anything interesting unless you like watching a bunch of dudes getting killed by sharpened sticks. Most of the film consists of commando thugs – displaying none of the skills we’d expect for being ex-Special Forces – jogging through underbrush and getting offed by Danton, who was disturbingly ready to start murdering ASAP (the body count for this film is over 50 people). There are two women in the film (Suzanne Tara and Dawn Abraham), and the film is super-skeezy about how it treats both of them. The rest of the cast is sweaty, mumbles their lines, and provides neither comic relief, pathos, or storyline. B-movie icon Cameron Mitchell and 50s/60s heart-throb Troy Donahue are both wasted in roles that aren’t much in terms of character or dialogue.

Notably, Prior’s impressive buffed-out physique (maintained by “Jack Daniels, beer, and chili dogs” by the actor’s own admission) is oiled up and on display in a pair of jean shorts that are now, unfortunately, emblazoned on my mind. At one point he has the chance to get showered and dressed before running off to fight in the woods some more, but. Well. Maybe the guy is allergic to shirts.

Definitely a film for anyone who enjoys Rambo knock-offs or has the perverse desire to watch all of Cameron Mitchell’s works (and I may be in one or both of those camps), but otherwise rather boilerplate 80s rated-R action fodder. The film is made more palatable by the Rifftrax, released in late 2016.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) - poster

Bone Tomahawk (2015) - poster

I suspect I watch “gritty” Westerns for different reasons than many others do. What can I say? I am just a dismal sonofabitch. I like bleak, plodding, bare-ass noir featuring a ragged heroism laid bare in a brief, tiny glory (my Netflix queue occasionally offers up a pop-up window asking, “Are you OK? You seem a little dark!”).

So given that dark neo-noir Westerns are my flavor, in that vein Tomahawk hits the mark – perfectly. It is my jam: almost agonizingly slow for at least an hour, to wallop us with a horror ending that is genuinely creepy AF. Throw in a little absolutely heartbreaking scenes and some great acting talent and hey – you’ve got my money!

If you liked the film, great. You might not want to read on.

Because here’s the thing: this film wants to be considered on its merits. This film wants to be considered as different, special – one that deserves critical claim and a place in cinematic history. “Shockingly Brutal!” – “Brace Yourselves!” – and “Something Different” shout the film’s own PR, and many male critics.

So let’s talk about the film – on its own merits, as a serious project in the history of Westerns. Let’s talk about how “different” it really is.

Briefly, and without spoilers: Tomahawk is a contemporary upgrade to its most obvious spiritual antecedent, 1956’s The Searchers, a real game-changer Western that has influenced many if not most American Westerns since. Searchers and 1992’s The Unforgiven were great milestone in dark Westernry, and I love them both. Searchers is a great film, but we need to acknowledge racial and sexual overtones that were regressive and gross. Or so everyone says, now. So if that’s what we believe – have we evolved much since?

Because in my opinion Tomahawk isn’t much of an upgrade, besides some rated R content. The film echoes other “serious” recent Westerns with similar themes: Slow West (2015), The Homesman (2014), andThe Salvation (2014): gorgeous production values, wonderful acting talent, exciting scores, and good writing – but ultimately a White Dude Vanity Project. I think we have long past the tipping point of needing diversity in our writing and directing teams, and so far these updates are rare as hen’s teeth (see “Strange Empire”, a short-lived but fascinating Canadian venture I call “‘Deadwood’ – if women were permitted to write and direct, and women of color permitted to star”).

Acting talent is lovely: the cast is (mostly) a delight, especially Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins as sheriff and deputy and best friends (I’ve always enjoyed the latter actor and I was glad to see him get such a great part). Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox are less charismatic as two members of the main party, the latter an unrepentant Indian-killer portrayed if not in a heroic light, definitely in a “Welp, Agree to Disagree” one. That said, Russell and Jenkins alone are wonderful to watch, and their relationship is strong and sweet, bordering on saccharine at times. Writing is a strong suit here – even a brief appearance of the sole Native American speaking role (Zahn McClarnon) delivers a good punch. A clever cameo by Sid Haig and small role by the often-creepy David Arquette provide surprisingly delicious morsels in this cannibal fare. (OK. Tiny spoiler, there)

There are just a couple women in the film, and they are simply: adoring wives. That’s it. We also get a brief shot of some maimed rape victims in final scenes. Women are plot points to the men’s stories. <yawn> because I’ve seen it a thousand times but still – come on.

And yes, Indians. The treatment of Native Americans is even worse. When your film’s “monster” natives are very, very reminiscent of 1999’s The Thirteenth Warrior – you might think of a re-do.

Because when all is said and done this is just another flavor in hundreds of films that somehow justify, incredibly, the “civilized” man’s law and (gun-based) order, the “rescue” of helpless women, and the brutal slaughter of Indians (although the film is careful to say these are DIFFERENT Indians, not the REGULAR Indians we like to slaughter. These Indians really deserve it! Trust me! Look what they DO! SO MEAN!).

And as an interesting side note: the film is brutal and scary, yes, and I loved that about it. But the “shocking” brutality the fans speak of is, I suspect, more about a few key scenes and less about a specific quantity of gore. I think what makes audiences uncomfortable are a couple scenes we don’t typically see – one, notably, where a man is stripped nude (full frontal), and then tortured in a way involving his bare genitals, while another scene tortures a man including threatening his genitals with annihilation by shotgun.

Turns out male viewers don’t like sexualized violence levied against their person – gee, I wonder how that feels?

As I was careful to make clear, I enjoyed Bone Tomahawk. There’s a lot to like and I’d watch it again for Russell and Jenkins alone.

But I suspect I will enjoy, even more, the trickle of more diverse writing, producing, and directing teams in the genre. You know, the genre of, “Westerns so upsetting you have to watch them in the daytime”. Because hey – that, I can get behind!

Watch if: you like the same upsetting, violent grit I do.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) - still

“Sean Young, you can have two lines. OK. Maybe three.”

 

Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - poster

Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - poster

What starts out as a fishing trip for Angelino family Harry, Ann, Rick and Karen Baldwin (Ray MillandJean HagenFrankie Avalon, and Mary Mitchell) quickly becomes a fight for survival. A few hours into their trip, they discover via radio broadcast that they have narrowly escaped a seeming nuclear attack on Los Angeles. Their instinct is to turn back to help, but this decision increasingly seems an unwise one. As the family makes their way back into the hills under the leadership of Harry, they search for food, weaponry, and safe haven amongst an increasingly diverse series of dangers in the form of other desperate human beings.

What a confusing film! While in so many ways the drama is pretty fantastic – and certainly better than the glut of disaster films we’ve been treated to in the last fifteen years – there are some serious and fatal drawbacks. The way women are treated in this film is – and I don’t use this term lightly – simply reprehensible. And the character development of main-man Harry is muddled at best.

But let’s talk about the good stuff. The survival vignettes are well-done. Especially the relatively organic way news travelled before the internet-age. The Baldwins have a little time to scour the rural merchantiles for supplies, before canny shopkeeps start charging ridiculous prices for gas and food. Harry is a practical hero: he is immediately focussed on planning for short-term safety for the family, in hopes that when some semblance of order is restored they will still be in one piece. Anyone watching is bound to feel the tension of such an uncertain scenario. Is it just L.A. that’s been bombed? Did any of our friends survive? What happens when our supplies run out?

But it’s hard to know who you’re supposed to be rooting for. Our “hero” Harry is at first an insufferable know-it-all, spending the first forty percent of the film telling his family what to do, what to think, and how to feel. He and his son Rick, incredibly, keep calling Ann and Karen “the women”, and ordering them to stay quiet in the trailer. But Rick doesn’t get much more an esteemed place than “the women”, either.  “We need to have a little family discussion,” Harry intones after he says grace at their first meal in hiding – and then proceeds to lecture them about what they’re going to do in this survival situation without allowing one word in edgewise.

 

Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - still 1

“Shut up because I’m more important than you”

From “just a huge windbag jerk” things get a little complicated where Harry is concerned, as he becomes a selfish, fear-driven megalomaniac. He ends up brazenly putting his family first without a single thought of anyone else’s welfare, most notably in a scene where he throws flaming gasoline out on a highway crammed with speeding cars. He won’t help anyone besides the family, which likely results in a few deaths. While the film explores a bit of his emotional conflict, this character development doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There is no retribution or denoument – the film kind of putters out with a, “Well I guess our heroes are all okay! (except for all the Rape which you’re not allowed to talk about)!”
Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - still 2

White Man’s Burden

And then, the gender roles. #yikes! Women are portrayed as hysterical, helpless, and clumsy. Not content to threaten the women with rape, the film gets down to it in the third act, raping three of four women onscreen. And of course, it isn’t the event of rape that’s objectionable, but rather the way the filmwriters handle it. For instance: after daughter Karen’s rape she apologizes for her assault to her father. He responds by storming off in a predictable Virgin Spring-esque retribution, natch. Then steadfastly ignores her trauma or any responsibilities he has as a father – because he “can’t face her”.

Eewwwwwww!

A few minutes later recently-orphaned and gang-raped Marilyn (Joan Freeman) is rescued – albeit in a most cruel fashion. They take her back to the camp whereby young Rick responds by – flirting with her?

The goggles they do nothing!

I don’t mean to belabor the way women are treated in the screenplay but: 1. Hello, We Are Half of the Population so it’s Kinda Relevant; and 2. It Really Is Very, Very Egregiously Gross.

Moving on.

The film is paced well, and if you can ignore all the previously-mentioned Ick there is a lot of good stuff here. Today’s disaster films spend oodles of cash on special effects; a more chilling effect here is carried off by good writing. Soundtrack buffs will enjoy the Beatnik-y, edgy score by Les Baxter. B-movie fans will enjoy a small but memorable performance of Richard Garland (one-time husband to actress Beverly Garland), and the sneer of “juvenile delinquent” character actor Richard Bakalyan.

A must-see for fans of disaster films – and fans of Milland, of which I am most ardent.

Tangerine (2015) - poster

Tangerine (2015) - poster

One of the funniest, most warm-hearted, joyful comedies I’ve experienced, Tangerine is the best surprise I’ve had this year. Somewhat incredible praise considering the film is rife with “adult” language and situations, all kinds of IRL-nudity, and a host of rather horrid physical and verbal assaults.

Still? Movie, you complete me!

Tangerine (2015) - still

It’s best to know nothing about the movie whatsoever before watching it – so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, and watch it.

Our leads – Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee Rella and Mya Taylor as Alexandra, both women without previous film experience – absolutely make the film. And this ends up being literally true, as their life stories and the stories of their friends were the genesis for the narrative. In fact, the background of how Tangerine was made – and how the filmmakers developed the story, found the actors and cameos, and sourced the score – is both exciting and fascinating. This backstory is still not as good as the film itself – so go see it.