Birds of Prey (2020)

It took me over a thousand rambling words to defend the much-reviled DC supervillain team-up Suicide Squad as Passably Okay back when it was first released in 2016. It was an ugly mess of a film when considered in its comic-book worldbuilding context, but as an outsider to that end of nerdom I found it amusing as a Hot Topic-costumed shoot-em-up action flick. Where I was really out of step with the critical consensus on that film was believing that it was saved, not ruined, by its studio tinkering. Suicide Squad was edited to Hell and back, removing as much of meathead director David Ayer’s personal vision and footage of Jared Leto’s meth clinic Joker as the studio could manage with while still walking away with a “coherent” picture. The genius of this post-production tinkering is that it highlighted the two sole items of interest in Suicide Squad’s arsenal: its mall-goth flavored gun violence and Margot Robbie’s electric performance as the Joker’s anarchic moll, Harley Quinn (mostly through Robbie’s already-established chemistry with Will Smith, sans Leto). Brilliantly, Suicide Squad’s spinoff sequel Birds of Prey (produced by Robbie herself) has further isolated & extrapolated those two morsels of entertainment value to the point where my moderate enjoyment of the previous picture is now obsolete. In fact, most superhero media of the past couple decades (or at least since Joel Schumacher transformed Batman into a gay cartoon) now feels obsolete in a post-Birds of Prey world. This is exactly what I’m looking for in modern superhero pictures but rarely, if ever, receive.

Birds of Prey is just as narratively messy as Suicide Squad, but this time it’s an intentional result of its protagonist’s loopy POV rather than a toxic-waste byproduct of studio interference. Its “story” mimics a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled timeline assemblage, but only because its narrator is too far detached from reality to relay a linear tale. As a result, nothing about its diamond heist MacGuffin plot or running-from-the-law dramatic tension registers as especially important. This is more of a bubblegum pop breakup song than it is a feature film, catching up with the violent-crime clownstress Harley Quinn in the immediate hours after being dumped by her abusive, manipulative boyfriend The Joker. Devastated but liberated, Harley lashes out at the world at large in grand displays of heartbreak: getting blackout drunk at the local gangster bar; exploding the chemical refinery where she used to loiter with her boo; forming a titular girl gang with fellow violent eccentrics; and shotgunning entre cans of Cheese Wiz directly into her mouth. Those grand displays of heartache announce to the local crime world that she’s no longer under the Joker’s “protection,” making it open season for any and all dirtbag men she’s wronged over the years to seek revenge for past grievances. As her road to self-fulfilling singledom and her clashes with every scummy bro in Gotham pile up, the movie ultimately becomes a thin excuse to watch Margot Robbie kick the shit out of nameless men, model sparkly costumes, and mug directly at the camera. What I’m saying is it’s a delight.

The slapstick action-comedy of this grim, R-rated novelty is as hyperviolent as it is hyperfemme. Harley Quinn smashes men’s faces & kneecaps with wild abandon, but she’s most likely to do so with a canon-fired glitter bomb or a bejeweled baseball bat. She commands the same anarchic, glammed-up energy as Bugs Bunny in drag, and the entire movie around her has no choice but to warp itself around that Looney sensibility. I struggle to explain exactly why that “Ain’t I a stinker?“ pranksterism works for me here when I found it brutally unfunny in the Deadpool movies, except maybe in that the wardrobe is more exciting and Robbie, unlike Ryan Reynolds, can actually land a joke. It might just be that it’s more of a refreshing novelty to watch women behave badly than men, as they so rarely get the chance. When asked why she’s such a self-absorbed, explosively violent monster in the film’s third act, Harley muses, “I guess I’m just not a good person.” It’s likely that freedom to misbehave so flagrantly is what drew Robbie back in to revive the role despite the avalanche of negative Suicide Squad critiques (this time with a female creative team – director Cathy Yan & writer Christina Hodson). Whatever the case, the devious humor she finds in this mayhem absolutely lights up the screen, and the only times the movie momentarily stumbles are in the occasional scenes where anyone who’s not Harley highjacks the POV. I can apparently watch her tear through sequin outfits & broken bones for hours without flagging in enthusiasm. Every minute she’s onscreen is pure, chaotic joy.

More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.

-Brandon Ledet

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2017

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There are 47 feature films nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards. We here at Swampflix have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2016 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2016 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1. 20th Century Women, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.”

2. Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Visual Effects

“A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent.”

3. Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design

Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are somewhat mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.”

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4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

“The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!”

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5. Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography

“It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.”

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6. Zootopia, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.”

7. Hidden Figures, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

“As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ sign and declared that ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,’ after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers.”

8. Moonlight, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomi Harris)

“In Moonlight, Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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9. Arrival, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing

Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.”

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10. La La Land, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.”

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11. I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary

“It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp.”

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12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion.”

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13. Star Trek Beyond, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real ‘classic style’ Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.”

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14. The Jungle Book, nominated for Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).”

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15. Captain Fantastic, nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)

“Six kids wielding knives, late-night gravedigging, and skinning animals all sound like elements to a rather disturbing horror movie, but, surprisingly, all exist in Matt Ross’s latest comedy-drama, Captain Fantastic. Those with a slightly darker sense of humor will get a kick out of this film, but it really has something to offer everyone, such as family values, brief nudity, religious humor, and a heart-wrenching love story. I had no idea who Matt Ross was, and I was surprised to see that he directed less than a handful of movies because he did such a ‘fantastic’ job with this one.”

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16. The Lobster, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.”

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17. Jackie, nominated for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.”

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18. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams)

“What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.”

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19. Nocturnal Animals, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)

Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).”

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20. Loving, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)

Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.”

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21. Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing

“I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.”

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22. Fences, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Support Actress (Viola Davis)

“Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone.”

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23. Suicide Squad, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness; it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their ‘art’, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.”

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24. Doctor Strange, nominated for Best Visual Effects

Dr. Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.”

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25. Elle, nominated for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)

Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s ‘behind you,’ having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Brandon’s Top Campy Treasures & Trashy Comedies of 2016

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1. The Mermaid – At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame) tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Part earnest romcom, part heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, part spoof of the 60s super-spy genre, The Mermaid is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date. Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that establishes him as a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how evil humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding as a slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming interspecies man-and-mermaid romance & a unique visual palette, one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use.

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2. The Greasy Strangler – As a creature feature, The Greasy Strangler undeniably delivers the goods. Although a decidedly camp-minded comedy, it boasts a truly hideous, horrifying, grease-coated monster that’s sickening to behold. What I find much more unique, however, is the way the film satirizes and sets aflame the modern indie romance genre. The color palette & social awkwardness of titles like Juno or Napoleon Dynamite (or whatever their post-aughts equivalent would be) is meticulously recreated here, but employed for a grotesque effect. This is quirk used for pure evil. Within seconds the antagonistic humor of this dirt cheap indie horror comedy establishes itself as the definition of not-for-everyone, but it shouldn’t feel too out of step for folks who’ve spent enough time following Adult Swim’s ever-evolving line-up over the years. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.

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3. The Love WitchThe Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of. It’s pursues an eerily accurate dedication to recreating the half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. Filmmaker Anna Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. She instead uses her backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect from an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

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4. The Bronze – Anyone going into The Bronze looking for Melissa Rauch to deliver the broad, calculated comedy she’s associated with on The Big Bang Theory is going to be shocked by the loose, raunchy cruelty she brings to the screen here. Rauch helms The Bronze as a writer/lead actor & the film reveals that her personal sense of humor has a wicked mean streak to it that is sure to alienate a lot of fans, but also draw in some new devoted ones, myself included. Besides the dark humor of her merciless selfishness, The Bronze‘s ex-Olympic gymnast protagonist is eternally horny in a purely animalistic, Jerri Blank sort of way. She’s constantly barraging her mild-mannered, Midwestern counterparts with phrases like “cock hole” & “clit jizz” and lights up the screen with the film’s centerpiece: an epic sexual encounter that could only be pulled off by a pair of oversexed Olympic gymnasts. Some of my favorite comedies of the past decade have been this gender-swapped version of raunch cinema (The To Do List, Appropriate Behavior, Wetlands, etc.) and The Bronze fits snugly among them. Combine that genre subversion with the film’s heartless cruelty, the novelty of its gymnastics-world setting, and expert use of my all-time favorite movie trope, the plot-summarizing rap song, and you have a strong contender for a future cult classic.

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5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. The modern pop documentary format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg & his fellow Lonely Island bros throw at the screen, making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

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6. Ghostbusters – Easily the most over-complained about film of 2016, the Ghostbusters reboot is an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick. I most appreciated the way director Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered an undercover SNL cast ensemble. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and (formerly) Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, but by lighting internet nerds’ idiotic indignation on fire in the process, a nontroversy the film addresses directly in some brilliant moments of meta-commentary, it stood out as one of the more notable dumb comedies of the year.

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7. Clown – Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product. Clown is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its highly specific aesthetic.

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8. The Boy – I expected The Boy to play out more or less exactly like the last PG-13 evil doll movie to hit the theaters, the largely disappointing Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Annabelle, but the film sets its sights much higher than that light supernatural tomfoolery. It’s far from wholly original as a horror flick, but instead pulls wacky details from a wide enough range of disparate sources that it ended up being an enjoyably kooky melting pot of repurposed ideas. A sharp left turn in the third act of The Boy completely obliterates the psychological/supernatural slowburn established in its first half & delves into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among schlock junkies & trash gobblers. I’m always a sucker for the evil doll movie as a genre, so it was a given that I’d see The Boy no matter what, but the film really does prove itself to be a solidly fun thrill of a horror trifle in the end, even if it functions as a pastiche.

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9. Pee-Wee’s Big HolidayPee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello, also playing “himself,” enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops.

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10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme (like its hilariously hideous predecessor), Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a dispiriting snapshot of where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it did or didn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

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11. Nine Lives – Speaking of 90s nostalgia, mark August 2016 down as the exact moment it reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things.

12. Mother May I Sleep With Danger? – James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on the pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, it’s is easily the most outrageously entertaining work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do every Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

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13. Hardcore Henry – This trashy novelty’s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema and the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. There’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick, too. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks, rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.

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14. The Shallows – The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve comfortably existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self-surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.

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15. Elvis & Nixon – Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold. Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about.

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16. Look Who’s Back – A Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world, Look Who’s Back mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that’s as odd of a delight as it is difficult to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. However, Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about current political attitudes towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously).

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17. Keanu – Not unlike their sketch comedy show, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s debut feature is not always consistently funny, but has really great, transcendently absurd moments. A fun action movie spoof featuring a cute kitten, plus some remarkable flashes of both Anna Farris and George Michael content, Keanu’s more memorable touches are rare gems to come by (especially in light of George Michael’s recent death). It also gets major bonus points in my mind for being the first movie I’ve seen smart enough to include not one, but two Future songs on its soundtrack, which is a resource more movies really need to start tapping into.

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18. Masterminds – A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds is essentially a feature length visual punchline. The machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau divisive comedic director Jared Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

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19. Suicide Squad – The studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was admittedly haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture in the process. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for a few interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of director David Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it.

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20. Scooby-Doo & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon – Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound pro wrestler characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox. Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. As the plot unravels, Curse of the Speed Demon gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon races & settings you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal.

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

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three star

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I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet