Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Release: Friday, February 7, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Christina Hodson

Directed by: Cathy Yan

Above all else Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is an expression of personality. It’s loud and ridiculous in almost every way, but it’s also really fun and that’s just enough for me to declare DC is off to a good start in the new decade.

Unlike several entries in DCEU’s troubled past the Harley Quinn standalone movie is an extremely colorful adventure. You might have heard it being described as the female Deadpool, and as far as style points are concerned that’s an accurate comparison (think lots of fourth-wall breaks, tape-rewinds and fruity language). Plot-wise I’d say this bears more resemblance to John Wick: Chapter 3Oddly enough the two movies actually do share stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski in common, who was called upon to punch up Birds of Prey‘s action bits.

A lively animated opening title sequence brings us up to speed on what’s going on in the world of Harley Quinn. When The Joker finally calls it quits on their relationship Harley (a.k.a. Harleen Quinzel, a.a.k.a. Margot Robbie) does what any normal person does and throws a pity party — an epic one. One that involves a radical haircut (sort of), adopting a pet hyena and driving an 18-wheeler into the Acme chemical plant, where she and Joker made their special little pact to be together 4eva. For her this is much-needed closure, until she realizes this has actually opened up new problems. See the thing is, all the years she’s been with Mr. J she’s basically been given carte blanche to do whatever to whomever. Now she’s “updated her status” in a very public way and soon Gotham’s finest scumbags are lining up to give the formerly untouchable Cupid of Crime her comeuppance.

At the top of the list of Harley haters is the obnoxious crime boss Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor in the hammiest performance of his career. It’s pretty OTT but apparently effective because I sure ended up hating this evil carnival barker-looking mofo. And Chris Messina as well, who plays Victor Zsasz, Sionis’ right-hand man and possibly more besides, with a more realistic creepy menace. Sionis (a.k.a. Black Mask) imagines himself the next best thing to the Joker, ruling Gotham’s underworld with an iron fist and the best mercenary pals ill-gotten money can buy. He’s a misogynistic sleaze with whom the Bad Gurl has racked up an impressive list of grievances — including, but not limited to, having the balls to interrupt him one time mid-sentence. More inconveniently, more recently and more relevant to the plot (such that it is), she’s the one who crippled his driver, prompting Sionis to “promote” his nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to the position.

As far as that plot is concerned, Sionis/Black Mask is lusting after some precious diamond, inside which lies an encrypted key to the Bertinelli crime family fortune, who we see meet a grisly end in a brief flashback of some importance. The diamond just so happens to have fallen into the hands of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), an orphaned girl and expert pickpocket. In an attempt to literally save face, Harley offers to recover it for Sionis. Knowing how much she likes a good fight the well-connected gangster sends every mutantly muscular mercenary in the metropolis after Cassandra, placing a half-million-dollar bounty on her head (ergo, John Wick 3 but with hair ties).

Though this is clearly the Margot Robbie show, Basco, the young Korean-Filipino actor playing Cassandra, does well to stand out in an ensemble of established talent. Her prickly personality makes for a difficult character to love but crucially her flaws make her human and give her room to grow (whether that’s into Batgirl, we shall see). For now, the way she brings out a softer side in Harley makes her more than a plot device linking the two main arcs. She also fits snugly under the film’s thematic umbrella. While the jaded teen is fighting for her physical freedom, each in this quintet are seeking emancipation of a kind, whether that’s Detective Montoya un-cuffing herself from a sexist work environment, Dinah Lance/Black Canary shaking the shackles of her greasy boss and his goons or Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. Huntress (a disappointingly under-used Mary Elizabeth Winstead) channeling childhood trauma and a lot of anger into a new identity.

Birds of Prey is director Cathy Yan’s second feature film and her first major Hollywood production. She directs from a screenplay provided by Bumblebee scripter Christina Hodson who adapts characters from the comic originally created by Jordan Gorfinkel and Chuck Dixon in 1996. Together Yan and Hodson build a scrappy team-up movie about a collection of seemingly random individuals reluctantly united against a common enemy. Their story more closely resembles an obstacle course that characters must navigate rather than a focused, concept-driven narrative. While we get enough of a feel for the supporting characters to make the thawing of the ice around these relationships rewarding, it’s Robbie’s passionate portrayal that leaves a lasting impression. Her interactions with everyone else is what makes this movie uniquely entertaining. It’s not high art but I had a great time with it nonetheless.

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Recommendation: Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two bleep-bloopers who we are beyond that.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

Swiss Army Man

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

There are some movies that just simply take your breath away. Ones where you’ll remember what theater you saw it in, where you were sitting, how many people were in there with you when you experienced THIS movie. Swiss Army Man is that kind of movie. It’s not even really a movie, it’s a religious experience . . .

. . . for those who appreciate a good arthouse picture.

I say that not with the slightest bit of remorse but rather with an air of caution. There’s a caveat to enjoying what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels,’ the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit music video ‘Turn Down For What’) have conjured here. I say that because the warning label should be clearly on display. When early word pegged their debut feature as the most surreal, offbeat adventure audiences are likely to ever experience it was hardly a hoax. Here is a narrative quite literally powered by flatulence and guided by erections. Absurdity. Madness. Despair. Love. Weird, sweet, de-sexified love.

Shifting the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry several feet closer to neutral on the Scale of Quirkiness, Swiss Army Man wastes no time as it opens with the striking image of a young man, Hank (Paul Dano), preparing to hang himself on a desolate island. Perched atop a small cooler with the fraying rope running to the top of the small cliff, he’s all but ready to commit to his decision when he suddenly spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It looks lifeless but Hank’s curiosity is piqued when he hears it farting. A lot.

Approaching the body with caution he notices, unsure if he’s hallucinating, that the gastric releases are only intensifying. He’s not hallucinating; this thing is literally sputtering to life like an old car. That’s when Hank discovers he can actually use this to his advantage, converting the bloated corpse into a kind of water vessel that will allow him to get back to the mainland. But it turns out methane-powered human jet-ski is only one of the ‘corpse”s many functions. He can also produce clean drinking water, and his seemingly jointless limbs come in handy for slicing and dicing things. He can also be used as a rocket and a grappling gun, and his erection functions as a compass, too — how fun!

Dismissing Swiss Army Man as little more than crass comedy is going to be too easy but that’s the same sword wielded by those who view the indie/arthouse crowd as nothing but hipsters. Or those who presumed everyone who went to see the Harry Potter movies were all bookworms. Despite frequent trips into puerile territory, this movie politely and perhaps all too quietly requests to be taken a little more seriously than the average Adam Sandler fudge pile. (In reality I’d compare this more to Rob Reiner’s timeless buddy-adventure Stand By Me.) Underpinning all this crudeness lies an aching despair to return to normalcy, to reconnect with what most of us would consider civilized society, to feel alive again after inexplicable bouts of being marooned delete you from existence.

The journey to get back home will be fairly easy in physical, practical terms given the endless supply of miracles “Manny” (as he apparently self-identifies) seems to provide. Even though he propelled them both back to shore with his ass, they’re still a far cry from home, and there are more complicated ideologies and dynamics to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long for Manny to question whether Hank is just using him for his own personal gain or if he actually cares about him, and for us to ponder just whether the two are fated for a really awkward fairytale ending, or something . . . darker.

Swiss Army Man is a movie in pain. Dialogue is sparse but it often delivers hard blows from which we take some time to recover. Conversation is often confronting and unnatural, yet it’s this entrenchment in brutal honesty that saves us from pretense. Primitive discussions about why people masturbate eventually find their place in the greater narrative. While conversations may start trending intellectual a little too prematurely for those who view proceedings as a more cut-and-dry buddy adventure, those conversations open up endless avenues for discussions of our own.

Hank is worried he’ll never have the confidence to make an impression on the woman he sees every day on the bus. Manny doesn’t understand why he is so pathetic, but then again, why would he? After all he’s just an undead, farting, bloated, water-logged dummy who washed up on shore, probably on accident. He once had a life too, but he can’t remember it. Presumably it too was filled with glorious tales of how he once masturbated.

As the adventure evolves we’re pulled further into a strikingly intimate world by a pair of mesmerizing performances. Dano is again in top form here but Radcliffe truly soars, creating a character for the ages. It doesn’t exactly announce itself as such, but Manny represents an achievement in acting and the Brit deserves to be considered in the discussion of best performances of the year. Never mind the fact Radcliffe had a stunt dummy doing most of the heavy lifting. The psychological and emotional components far outweigh the physical, and it’s in the quieter moments — around a campfire, up in a tree, face-down near a pile of animal feces — where we see a soul (and the occasional butt-cheek) exposed.

Dano is reliably weird, though his greatness is more expected as the actor continues defining his niche as an off-kilter, often unlikable enigma plagued by social outcastism. For his peculiar acting sensibilities Hank is, in a word, perfect. Much like this gloriously, obstinately, unabashedly strange little film. The farting corpse movie you’ll be telling your children all about years down the road.

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Recommendation: An absolute must-see movie! Thematically Swiss Army Man isn’t a movie you haven’t seen before, but in execution, I feel pretty confident saying you won’t find a thing like it this or any other year. It’s simply a marvel and a joy to watch unfold, offering up one of the finest performances of the year in Daniel Radcliffe, the poor lad who just can’t ever get away from having to make some comment on his latest role’s relation to his days in Hogwarts. This oddity, however, just might do the trick. For now. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.awardsdaily.com 

10 Cloverfield Lane

'10 Cloverfield Lane' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Josh Campbell; Matthew Stuecken; Damien Chazelle

Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg

Dan Trachtenberg’s suffocating and impossibly intense monster movie arrests viewers with a power few thrillers in recent memory have had. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an early contender for biggest surprise hit of 2016, delivering a story that’s conceptually simple, emotionally complex and psychologically perturbing.

Produced by J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane pits Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle against John Goodman’s doomsday prepper Howard, an ex-military man who claims he saved her life having rescued her from the wreckage of an accident and brought her to his underground bunker. The film is told primarily through her point of view as the cameras hover within an inch of her face, gauging her reaction as she awakens in a cold, bare room chained to a pipe. We’ll remain close to her throughout as the film brilliantly plays with that concept of perspective. Michelle believes she’s been kidnapped. Howard, despite himself, insists he is showing her hospitality. Further complicating things is the presence of a third party, someone whom Howard apparently has known for some time, a younger man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).

The cast is undeniably one of the film’s strengths. John Goodman hasn’t been this good in years and Winstead shoulders the task of carrying the movie with such grace, while Gallagher Jr. remains a fairly warm presence, attempting to lighten the mood whenever possible. With all due respect to their work, arguably the film’s greatest asset is its cramped setting. Small rooms filled with all the resources you’d expect to see in a fall-out shelter (note the shelves filled with Fruit-by-the-Foots)? Check. Maguffin-esque technology that justifies how they are able to breathe clean air? Check. Drab colors and dim lighting? Check. A sense of sterility overriding Howard’s best efforts to make the place feel cozy? Big, big check.

The claustrophobic set essentially means the interactions between the characters will be intense and susceptible to volatility, and their actions and reactions will be scrutinized appropriately. Even without knowing specifically what it will be, we know something is going to happen that will forever alter the dynamic and shift proceedings into an entirely new and even more uncomfortable paradigm. Call it fate. I’m going to call it the product of an excellent script collaborated on by Damien Chazelle, writer/director of the sensational jazz drumming drama Whiplash.

And while all of this is taking place underground, we’re left wondering . . . where are the monsters? 10 Cloverfield Lane is an exercise in restraint in that regard, depending on how you define what a monster is and is not. The concept of perception and how it can be so easily skewed extends well beyond what we think of the characters we’re stuck in a room with. It goes beyond the reaches of the bunker and out past the cornfields that surround forebodingly; it ventures deep into the unknown. Perception is everything here until it is nothing at all; in other words we have to absolutely trust in everything that’s being presented and thanks to the craftsmanship, that’s not much of a challenge.

It might be too early to call it a genre mainstay, but suffice it to say films like this, films in which suspense is established early and at a high level and only increases exponentially as time pushes on, are somewhat of a rarity. The stress here is real and it is relentless. Perhaps part of the shock of the experience stems from the nature of its release date. We only have to wait two more weeks until Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice drops, and here in the annual post-Oscars malaise we actually have something to chew over in a period where films typically are released without any fanfare because, well, they don’t deserve it. But the spiritual successor to Cloverfield does. Oh boy, how it does.

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Recommendation: In the vein of a sci fi thriller classic (still too early to say for sure but I already feel pretty comfortable saying it), 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film for adrenaline junkies. When all is said and done the buzz that it leaves you with is kind of cathartic. Excellent acting, gut-wrenching reveals and a brilliant narrative structure all work toward creating a film that is doggedly determined to do what it’s label suggests: thrill. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Kill the Messenger

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

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3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Spectacular Now

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Release: Friday, August 2, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Miles Teller had but one chance left to impress before I completely wrote him off as an actor who may have talent, but is perpetually doomed to recycling poor role choices. Even though his resumé may be limited, there’s enough to notice the pattern of him being typecast as the boisterous, most extroverted alpha male in the room. Never one to take anything seriously, the 26-year-old Teller in drunken fiascos like 21 & Over and Project X has been highly unlikable and the movies themselves never led me to believe the kid could really act. Fortunately, that opinion needs to be amended, now that I’ve seen his work in The Spectacular Now, an unusually refined story that shows a young couple falling in love and dealing with the complicated realities of being on the cusp of adulthood. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, but not one you’ve seen before.

Teller takes on a more civilized version of his once-and-future frat boy persona. Where he was once trying much too hard to channel his inner John Belushi circa Animal House with his high-spirited debauchery and general disregard for anyone around him (including his friends), his Sutter Keely is dressed in a decorum which really goes the extra mile in this new film from James Ponsoldt. While he’s still not my favorite element to the film (that recognition goes to Shailene Woodley’s stellar performance) this guy is a much more likable person and is one that is easy to get behind and root for. Finally.

Sutter’s that kid who refuses to think about the future. He lives very much in the moment, which is typically a healthy practice, but for him it’s become a mindset that has eroded more of his potential than fulfilled it since he seems content to just drift by in school, at his job and even in his relationships, all while embracing being king of high school — even if that is a clock that is set to expire pretty soon. Of course, he knows that, so isn’t that even more reason to remain in the here-and-now?

After a fall-out with his ex, Sutter goes on an inexplicable drinking spree (how does anyone get away with serving this kid when they know he’s underage?), gets tanked and drives home, which results in him laying in someone’s front yard, and being discovered by a concerned passer-by early the next morning. Thanks to his reputation, the girl immediately recognizes him, but he can’t quite put a name to this pretty face. She introduces herself as Aimee Finecky (Woodley). Call the rest history.

The film tumbles into a fierce love story between the two young stars that is intensely captivating. At a certain point, the performances and direction work so seamlessly that the script seems to be relegated to more of a guideline-type role and the real human element, the gut instinct, takes over. Being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, facing real-world problems suddenly with secrets being revealed about one another’s own families and their histories, there’s no doubt that in particular Sutter and Aimee’s transitional year from high school to. . . . . whatever comes next. . . is particularly turbulent. Well, more like explosive, and Ponsoldt was adept in capturing as many sparks as he could. The fact remains that while teenagers do “have it made” more or less, there’s a lot to figure out about one’s self this early on. This film utilizes that time period to explore some deeply personal and complex emotions and head spaces.

In the end, it’s the details that really arrest. From discovering certain underlying reasons as to why Sutter drinks just so damn much; to him convincing Aimee that she needs to quit doing the paper route for her mom (“Mom, get off my motherf**king back!” being one of the movie’s more memorable lines); to what happens on the side of a road one fateful night. The film is a complete tour-de-force as far as the emotional spectrum is concerned. It’s almost a little bi-polar — but that term doesn’t sound good, so we’ll just go with extremely moody. At the same time, it’s a complete package. The ups are terrific and moving, while the low points almost break you to pieces. The last thing I thought I would be doing would be nearly coming to tears concerning Teller’s character at one point.

At the end of the day, with me being completely nonplussed by Teller’s previous output and then being blown away by his performance here — that’s saying something. However, it should also be mentioned that he’s got plenty of great material surrounding him, but it’s obvious he has stepped up his game for this role. He’s really quite likable and to me that was one of the largest payoffs. With that said, the rest of the cast is simply wonderful as well and the movie benefits tremendously from top-notch work turned in by all.

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4-0Recommendation: This is an emotional rollercoaster and if this had a massively long queue lined up for it, it’s surely worth that wait. The cast bring career-defining performances (although for Woodley, she started off on an equally impressive foot with her work in The Descendants) and the events that go down here are all but guaranteed to affect everyone in attendance substantially. If not, then those are some pretty cold-hearted moviegoers. And I pity the fool(s).

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “What do you mean? Everybody’s got a story.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com