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These two do all the heavy lifting. They have a lot of chemistry without which this movie wouldn’t even work a little bit.

Bright is, in its own weird way, as divisive a movie as The Last Jedi. But kind of in reverse? General audiences seem to like it but critics fucking hate it. Well, I don’t hate it. I think it’s pretty great for what it is, but what it is seems to bother some people that don’t want to meet it on its own terms. I don’t really blame them, the way I might with other films, but it is worthwhile to point out that many of the criticisms are misguided. For one thing, can you blame this movie for being derivative of David Ayer’s own earlier work if that was entirely the point of the exercise? You can’t ignore that Bright basically remakes/recycles parts of Training Day and End of Watch and mixes in elements from a host of other movies and games, including Alien Nation and Shadowrun. It’s a big ol’ stew and it is frequently messy, but is that in itself bad or dumb? I say no. At the same time, I get why it might result in a lot of skepticism and impatience for viewers.

Max Landis wrote this movie for Ayer to direct (he also rewrote it) precisely because the concept was a mash-up of Ayer’s best cop movies and what is best described as “fantasy shit” (there’s a little more to it, but just a little). I’m not saying this makes it a good idea, or a good result, but it’s also kind of dumb to ignore where this movie came from when there’s no way it should ever be viewed as this independent self-contained thing. It’s not even a self-contained story. One of the more reasonable criticisms of it is that it feels more like a two-hour pilot for a TV show than it does a movie, especially with its ending. After watching it, I definitely wanted to hang out in this world more (and with these characters) and I’m not surprised that Netflix immediately green-lit a sequel. This project just feels like the start of a bigger story, rightly or wrongly. Landis and Ayer are both divisive figures themselves. They’re both white dudes who have gotten into trouble for speaking for non-white non-dudes in the wider discourse if identity politics and representation. They both seem to essentially mean well but have difficulty getting past their own privilege and the way it informs the way they talk (about race especially). Landis is viewed by many as a douchebag millennial poster-boy whose main talent is nepotism (his dad is John Landis) and occasionally clever remixes of other peoples’ work. He occasionally earns those opinions, but I think his work has been mostly good. Channel Zero and Chronicle are legitimately good things. Dirk Gently seems okay, American Ultra was okay, and Mr. Right was like an alt-version of American Ultra that is better, lesser known, and fairly underrated. Ayer, on the other hand, seems to shit out gold in one hand and… well, shit out shit in the other. This is a guy whose last two movies were Suicide Squad and Fury. To say he has a range in quality is an understatement. Even before that he seemed to be making one good movie out of every two, though I’d argue that both Sabotage and Harsh Times (his weaker ones) are head and shoulders better than Suicide Squad. Get these guys to make a movie together and the hope is that it combines what both of them are best at. I think on that level, we’re mostly getting just that but what your reaction is will depend a lot on whether you’re even here for whatever Max Landis and David Ayer are doing.

Though I thought it was a fun movie that had some dramatic and thematic legs, I can’t argue against the fact that Bright doesn’t really work when either of the two halves of its make-up is examined on its own merits. Bright is too derivative of its director’s own earlier work to stand up as a cop movie. Its world-building and fantasy elements are similarly familiar (derivative) for people who’ve seen or read Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. So your mileage on this whole crazy thing is going to vary depending on whether this fusion can work for you. Tropes and iconography can be referenced in a way that is meant to do all the work for the audience to buy into a world, which was one of the biggest problems with Suicide Squad. Landis is maybe better at that stuff than Ayer and I would argue that the litmus test for enjoying what Bright is doing is whether you think he/they pulled it off here. Bright expects you to understand the iconography and tropes enough to roll with what it’s doing, the hope being that the fusion will add some depth to what are too fairly shallow halves. That depth of world is necessary to buy into it enough to roll further with the movie’s themes, which are really about power, class, and race relations. This is the real meat, because this movie is very political. It’s not a super deep dive on any one of these points, but there is something to be said for the fact that the movie doesn’t treat race, class, and power as separate issues, instead drawing connections and pointing at the things “SJWs” have been saying since before there was a dismissive and ironically shitty acronym to describe people who stand up for other people. I think that identity politics and progressive messages (representation, tolerance, etc) are the kind of thing you have to re-iterate from as many facets and angles as you can. That didn’t used to be the approach. Stories that talked about race or class tended to ignore the other side of the coin, failing to make necessary connections between the ways these social issues are linked. There’s also that privilege makes people stubborn so maybe this movie’s orcs will be what finally clicks race and class intersections in street gang culture for some white boy watching it on his computer, one tab on Netflix and the other on InfoWars. Maybe seeing orcs in Crips drag is what does it. I doubt that’s expressly what Ayer or Landis are trying to do, but it isn’t lost on me that the more narratives (and types of narratives) speaking to these issues the better. The dudes who are very predisposed to watching The Last Jedi or Bright may not be the same dudes who watch Selma or Get Out or even Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri but all of these movies are saying some things in common that they, maybe more than anyone, need to hear. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oh look, a trainwreck.

Let’s just get this out of the way really quick: Suicide Squad is mostly dogshit but there are a few moments where it firmly enters genuine “so bad it’s good” territory and other moments where it’s trying so goddamn hard to manipulate you into feeling something that you just wanna say “good job, little guy” and give it a pat on the head. There’s even a few moments that feel earned, where the glimmer of a better movie is almost visible. But mostly it’s dogshit.

Why? God, where do I even start. It’s a music video of loosely connected moments, an insultingly hackneyed plot, and poorly constructed characterizations which are usually good for a laugh or an incredulous “what the fuck?” but rarely more. There’s also that it’s the most smugly, overtly misogynistic mainstream movie I’ve seen in a long time. May our inner fourteen year olds cheer. I mean, there’s definitely an audience for this. The anti-PC crowd will eat up every utterance of “bitch” or “ho”, every sexed up costume and variation on “women be crazy“. I already know from the audience I saw it with that women getting punched in the face at the drop of a dime is just delightful. Your faith in humanity will not be well served by Suicide Squad audiences, but that’s nothing unusual. More than the overall quality of the movie, I was surprised by the misogyny. I like David Ayer. FuryEnd of Watch, and Training Day are all fantastic films. But his aesthetic is “street” and here it is the kind of street evoked by youtube gangsta rappers who are trying too hard. Likely, this is where the unaddressed misogyny comes from: it’s part of the assumed iconography of “street” culture where there’s men and there’s bitches or hos or bitch-hos. I think the script of Suicide Squad says a lot about what he and the other creatives for the DC movieverse think about the fans of these stories and characters, though. I think instead of whining to critics (or threatening them) or trying to sue because Joker isn’t in the movie enough, these fanboys ought to vote with their dollars (and their attention) and give WB a reason to stop hiring people who think so little of them. Of all of us, really.

Anyway, yeah, Suicide Squad is really bad. Is it worse than Batman vs. Superman? I don’t know. Do you compare dogshit to catshit very often? They’re two of the worst superhero movies in recent memory, I can tell you that much. And yet. And yet, Suicide Squad is also a fascinating watch. I was never bored. Very much like the first viewing of a Michael Bay Transformers movie, I was kind of transfixed (and yes, entertained) by what I was seeing and hearing. Sometimes I could not believe the movie and other times I was almost on the hook for a heroic moment or a badass line. I think it’s fair to say I was never “with” this movie, and my enjoyment was almost always at its expense. This movie might have had something, but it’s like watching Jared Leto play hot potato with himself for almost two hours. Or like an episode of The Venture Brothers that wasn’t trying to be a parody. Read the rest of this entry »

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Some stunning shots in this movie.

I expected a Shyamalanatastrophe with After Earth. Although the first, stunning trailer was very good, the more information that came out about this movie the more convinced I was that it would be fucking awful. I read all about how Will Smith came up with the idea and decided to make a multimedia empire around this detailed, ludicrous backstory. A 300 page “Bible” was written, comic book guys were brought on to make supplementary stuff, and the whole project ignored all the other attempts to do this that feel dismally flat (The Matrix, Southland Tales, etc). Honestly, I expect the same for After Earth. It won’t become some new Star Wars even with the considerable influence of Smith.

That said, the movie is not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. Maybe a bit slight, given that it tells a small scale story in a large scale world. Like YA books, it uses its big concepts more for backdrop and setting than for actual storytelling. The story is intimate, with only a few characters and some straightforward thematic work (which is resonant almost in spite of itself). People who are expecting bigger payoffs to the lore are going to come away disappointed. This is a movie that does world-building by implication more than exposition. As such, we aren’t told much that we don’t expressly need to know to follow the core story. The one exception is a long bit of lumpy exposition delivered in the drawling “space human” accent of Jaden Smith. Still, there’s a distinct likelihood that this is going to frustrate a lot of viewers. In many ways After Earth feels incomplete with many opportunities to show off concepts and details left to fall by the wayside. I assume the idea was to get away from conventional tropes and payoffs, but there’s a balance that this movie doesn’t quite get to.

What makes the movie good is that it’s fully in command of that smaller, core story. With the resonant themes, sense of scale, and a well designed world to play around in, Shyamalan and writing partner Gary Whitta take Smith’s story idea and do fine, unambitious work with it. There’s room in the world for humble, one-off stories that leverage an epic backstory for intimate storytelling. That said, don’t expect a legitimate science fiction movie out of After Earth. It’s a fantasy movie that happens to have neat technology, space ships, and aliens. It is not speculative or scientific in the least. Read the rest of this entry »

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