Of a Feather

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

First on the Harley Quinn playlist: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Harley (Margot Robbie, positively electric) tells us she and the Joker are done, and she didn’t take it well. What’s worse, Harley’s new relationship status means anyone in Gotham who’d like her dead (and there’s plenty) doesn’t have to worry about payback from “Mr. J.”

Shuffle: It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World

At the top, there’s Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up to glorious effect) who likes the faces peeled off of his enemies. He wants a priceless diamond that’s been lifted by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Harley, forced to bargain for her life, promises to get it.

But Gotham has no shortage of talented women fed up with being kept down, and Harley tends to attract them. The vocally gifted Black Canary (June Smollett-Bell), the deadly mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, scene-stealingly deadpan) and the conveniently suspended Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez, nice to see you) all find themselves on the wrong end of a sizable bounty, and things get messy.

Shuffle: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

The badass girl power isn’t limited to the cast. Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) serves up an irresistible cocktail of Scott Pilgrim visual flair and Tarantino continuity clash. Yan seems to relish the freedom of an R-rating (see “face-peeling” above), crafting memorable set pieces bursting with slick fight choreography, cartoonishly satisfying violence and wonderfully stylish pandemonium.

Shuffle: Respect

As Hope’s dad told the many Madden girls growing up: eyes, nose, throat, groin, knees are all equally vulnerable no matter the size of the attacker. Yan appears to be the sister we didn’t know about, but she certainly knows how to hurt a guy.

Writer Christina Hodson has become the go-to for ridiculous franchises that need more than we dare hope (she’s the one who wrote the only Transformers movie that didn’t suck). She teams well with Yan and her badasses, offering backstories and traumas that toe the line between superhero/supervillain legend and shit women deal with every day.

If you saw the stale trailer, noted the deadly release date, remembered the limp Suicide Squad and feared the worse, we hear ya. And maybe Birds of Prey benefits slightly from low expectations. But there’s no denying the raucous, foul mouthed, glitter-bomb fun.

Shuffle: Free Bird (live version).

Atomic Blondes

Bombshell

by Hope Madden

Bombshell, Jay Roach’s depiction of the unrepentant sexual harassment that poisoned the work atmosphere at Fox News, is equal parts cathartic and depressing.

Buoyed by strong lead performances in a trio of unerring talent—Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie—the film also leans on an incredible and sizable ensemble to deliver a surprisingly nuanced look at the shades of grey, of complicity and responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment.

“It’s no one’s job to protect you,” Theron’s Megyn Kelly tells newbie Kayla (Robbie).

“It’s all of our jobs,” she disagrees.

No surprise the script comes from The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph. Roach’s film benefits from the same kind of thoughtful, informative, funny and “can you believe this?” approach, but Bombshell lacks much of the rage and outright comedy of an Adam McKay film.

Like McKay, Roach left comedies behind in favor of headier, sharper, more political material. Also like McKay, his comedic sensibilities breathe some life into the efforts, helping this film serve the dual purpose of entertaining and informing. And, like McKay, Roach knows how helpful a well-placed comedian can be.

Kate McKinnon actually does a lot of the film’s narrative heavy lifting. (Is it wrong I wanted her to play Rudy Giuliani as well?) As a Bill O’Reilly producer who befriends Kayla and helps her better understand the Fox New world, she allows Roach to make salient points about the network and the way it’s run, but because McKinnon is naturally funny and incredibly talented, it feels organic.

Her character’s position when it comes to rocking the boat also offers a clear-eyed take on why toxic work environments can go unchecked for so long. Since McKinnon’s character is in many ways the one the audience will most relate to, this is a sly and successful maneuver to keep us from feeling too superior and enabling us to better empathize with characters we may not like as well.

Enough cannot be said for the work of Roach’s makeup department, especially that of prosthetic make up designer Kazu Hiro. Theron’s imperceptible prosthetic—along with her own posture and voice work—turn her into an alarming replica of Kelly. Ditto Nicole Kidman, and John Lithgow, whose performance as Roger Ailes also delivers a wallop.

Not that any of this matters if the three central performances lacks in any department. They don’t. Characteristically, Theron, Kidman and Robbie deliver exceptional work, each willing (as they always are) to depict a woman who is not always (or, in some cases, is rarely) likable but who deserves respect and empathy for her suffering and courage.

Wisely, Roach and team don’t get swept away by the bracing change and empowerment of victory. Indeed, Bombshell’s final act is a smack I still feel. But its power is its honesty.

California Dreamin’

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Happy QT Day, everyone — that rare and special holiday where moviegoers love a movie made by an unabashed lover of movies. And this time, he’s made a movie about loving the movies.

It’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s clearest love letter to cinema both great and trashy. Spilling with nostalgia and packing more sentiment than his previous 8 films combined, Hollywood is the auteur’s most heartfelt film.

Not that it isn’t bloody. Once it hits its stride the film packs Reservoir Dogs-level brutality into a climax that’s as nervy as anything Tarantino’s ever filmed. But leading up to that, as the filmmaker asks us to look with a mixture of fondness and sadness at two lives twisting toward the inevitable, he’s actually almost sweet.

One of those lives belongs to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time TV Western leading man who’s made a couple of poor career choices and seems to be facing obsolescence. This would mean, domino-style, the obsolescence of his best friend and stunt double with a sketchy past, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

But that’s not the second story, which instead belongs to the real life tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Set in the LA of 1969, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood uses the Manson family crimes (marking its 50th anniversary this August) as the thematic underpinning, a violent metaphor for the end of two eras.

Tarantino being Tarantino, though, he’ll use the movies to make everything better.

From the foot fetish (more proudly on display than ever) to the familiar faces (even one who made the cutting room floor and the credits), the hiply retro soundtrack to the inky black humor, Hollywood hides no Tarantinoism. But the film establishes a timestamp more precisely than any of his other works. And on the whole, he shows unpredicted restraint.

The film moseys through the first two acts, with long, deliberate takes full enough of pop culture as to completely immerse you in time and place. Tarantino again frames sequences with alternating levels of homage, but dials back the dialogue from his usual quick-hitting crispness to measured ruminations often thick with intention.

In strokes stylish and self-indulgent, Tarantino is bidding adieu to halcyon days of both flower power innocence and the Hollywood studio machine. Here, he’s looking back on the Manson murders as a dividing line, and again wondering what might have been.

For us QT aficionados, Hollywood may feel at first like an odd, overlong duck, but its wandering nature gives you ample time to adjust. The cast shines from top to bottom, propelling an entertaining vision of humor and blood and irony and bittersweet nostalgia.

Settle in, trust the driver and enjoy the ride.

Alice in Underland

Terminal

by Hope Madden

Femme fatales. Hitmen. Disjointed timelines. Neon.

Sin City was interesting in 2005.

Vaughn Stein’s debut as a feature film writer/director, after many years assisting, borrows heavily from the Tarantino explosion of the Nineties and early 2000s. He drops us into a metropolitan underworld where danger intersects with madness and borrowed style tries desperately to draw attention away from lack of substance.

He does have Margot Robbie, though, so that’s a start. Robbie plays the aforementioned femme fatale in a hulking underbelly of a soundstage meant to look like a cross between a wee-hours train terminal, an insane asylum and Wonderland—all with that vacant, neon emptiness of a neo-noir.

Robbie’s Annie is a hitman masquerading as a waitress in the terminals all-night diner. There’s a hidden mastermind, a mysterious cripple, a couple of contract killers and a teacher who needs a little nudge before he’s ready to off himself.

Vaughn immediately brings Sin City to mind with his splashy comic book noirisms. It’s hard for that to feel fresh at this stage in filmdom, and his tired hodge-podging of hyper-dramatic tropes doesn’t breathe any new life into the story.

In fact, the story is the problem. It’s an awful lot of nothing, truth be told, with nary a surprise and loads of letdowns.

There is a bit in the diner that’s worth a watch. An excellent Simon Pegg waits for a train and chit chats with a borderline insane waitress (Robbie). Their chemistry is odd and welcome, and Pegg’s delivery is particularly impeccable. In these scenes, Vaughn’s writing suddenly feels engaging and unpredictable.

The core story about two killers Annie is playing against each other peters out blandly, and though the answer to any other surprise has long ago been telegraphed in, still we sit through an intolerable backstory.

Robbie does what she can, though she leans a bit too heavily on her Harley Quinn character to sell Annie’s mental state. She’s mad as a hatter, you see. We know that because she told us so in an opening voiceover narration.

The film isn’t awful, but it isn’t good. Mainly, there is just nothing new to see here.





No Shoes, No Pants, No Problem

Peter Rabbit

by Christie Robb

Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, some gatecrashing, a tense dude named McGregor, and a pervasive lack of pants. But Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit is a bit of a departure from Beatrix Potter’s twee kids’ books.

And you might think, ugh, not another attempt to lengthen and embellish a piece of classic literature beyond all reason (looking at you, Peter Jackson). But hold on. This (cotton) tale takes place somewhat after the events in Ms. Potter’s books. Both Peter’s (James Corden) parents are dead and there’s a new McGregor in town, Domhnall Gleeson (perhaps most familiarly known now as the strident General Hux from the Star Wars saga).

Gleeson’s McGregor is an acutely type A city slicker who longs to immediately sell his recently inherited country estate in order to reinvest the profits in a business venture back in London. Until he meets the animal lover/bunny portraitist Bea (Rose Byrne) who lives in the Pinterest-worthy cottage next door.

This gets Peter’s invisible knickers in a twist for two reasons: 1) restricted access to the tantalizing McGregor garden, and 2) a rival for the affections of Bea who, in the absence of his own rodent parents, has become personage he invests with a significant amount of maternal affection.

The conflicts escalate in cartoon violence that’s kinda Home Alone by way of the Odd Couple. And, as you might expect, it is an absolute delight to see Gleeson rant in nearly Shakespearean cadences about the antics of an anthropomorphized rabbit.

(To be honest, I’d probably pay the price of a movie ticket to see Gleeson take exception to piece of burnt toast.)

Like Gleeson, the supporting cast is also a delight. Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley stand out as Peter’s siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and the devil-may-care Cotton-tail.

If you want to get all highbrow about it, the entire movie can be read as a metaphor for a kid’s struggle to accept a new romance in the life of a primary caregiver. And if you want to be honest, it bears as much resemblance to its source material as my 4-year-old’s picture of me does to the Mona Lisa.

But there’s enough beautiful animation, fun 90s and early 00s songs, and Easter-egg jokes for parents in case the kids decide they really like this movie and you have to watch it 400 times.





Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

You know what? This year’s batch of Oscar hopefuls have made some genuinely excellent horror movies. Richard Jenkins starred in not only the amazing Bone Tomahawk, but also the underseen Fright Club favorite Let Me In. Willem Dafoe took a beating in the amazing Antichrist and grabbed an Oscar nomination for his glorious turn in Shadow of the Vampire. Laurie Metcalf made us laugh and squirm in Scream 2 and Woody Harrelson led one of our all time favorite zombie shoot-em-ups, Zombieland.

But what’s the fun in talking about that when so many of the nominees have made so many bad movies? Here we focus on the worst of the worst, but if you check out the podcast we mention even more.

5. Halloween II (2009)

Octavia Spencer’s 20+ year career, struggling early with low-budget supporting work, guarantees her a place in this list. Indeed, she could have taken several slots (2006’s Pulse is especially rank), but we find ourselves drawn to Rob Zombie’s sequel to his 2007 revisionist history.

Zombie ups the violence, adds dream sequences and suggests that Laurie Strode (played here, poorly, by Scout Taylor-Compton) shares some hereditary psychosis with her brother Michael.

Spencer plays the Night Nurse, which naturally means that she dies. Pretty spectacularly, actually, but that hardly salvages the mirthless cameo-tastic retread.

4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola took his shot at Dracula in ’92. How’d he do?

Cons: Keanu Reeves cannot act. Winona Ryder can act—we’ve seen her act—but she shows no aptitude for it here, and lord she should not do accents. Anthony Hopkins has always enjoyed the taste of scenery, but his performance here is just ham-fisted camp.

Pros: Gary Oldman, who can chomp scenery with the best chewers in the biz, munches here with great panache. He delivers a perversely fascinating performance. His queer old man Dracula, in particular – asynchronous shadow and all – offers a lot of creepy fun. Plus, Tom Waits as Renfield – nice!

Still, there’s no looking past Ryder, whose performance is high school drama bad.

3. Clownhouse (1989)

There are several fascinating pieces of information concerning the derivative yet uniquely weird Clownhouse. These range from odd to awful.

1) The Sundance Film Festival somehow found this film—this one, Clownhouse, the movie about 3 escaped mental patients who dress as clowns, break into a house where three brothers are home alone on Halloween night, and commence to terrify and slaughter them— worthy of a nomination for Best Drama. If you haven’t seen this film, you might not quite recognize how profoundly insane that is.

2) The great and underappreciated Sam Rockwell made his feature debut as the dickhead oldest brother in this movie. The clowns themselves—Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo—are genuinely scary and garishly fascinating, but outside of them, only Rockwell can act. At all.

3) Writer/director Victor Salva would go on to create the Jeepers Creepers franchise. But first he would serve 15 months of a 3-year state prison sentence for molesting the 12-year-old lead actor in this film, Nathan Forrest Winters.

So, basically, this film should never have been made. But at least Rockwell got his start here.

2. Margot Robbie: ICU (2009)

Margot Robbie is a confirmed talent. Underappreciated in her wickedly perfect turn in Wolf of Wall Street, she has gone on to prove that she is far more than a stunning beauty (though she certainly is that).

Not that you’d realize that by way of her early work in this low-budget Aussie dumpster fire.

The then-19-year-old leads a cast of unhappy teens vacationing for the weekend with their estranged dad, who’s called into work yet again. To entertain themselves, they peep on their neighbors through the facing skyscraper windows.

Robbie showers, swims and changes clothes at least 3 needless times within the film’s opening 10 minutes, which makes a film that wags a finger at modern voyeurism feel a little hypocritical. But to even make that statement is to take writer/director Aash Aaron’s film too seriously. Heinously acted, abysmally written and tediously directed, it amounts to 50 minutes of whining followed by utterly ludicrous plot twists, unless Australia boasts the largest per-capita number of serial killers on earth.

But the point is this: Robbie would go on to deliver stellar performances, so this is just something we all need to shake off.

1. Frances McDormand: Crimewave (1985)

Is a horror film really a horror film just because imdb.com says so?

Well, anything as bad as Crimewave is a horror, that’s for sure. The fact that it’s a slapstick crime comedy at its heart hardly matters.

Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Sam Raimi and co-starring Bruce Campbell, this film has a pedigree. And we love them all so much we can almost forgive them for this insufferable disaster. But we suffered through it for two scenes—one at the beginning, one at the end—involving a nun who’s taken a vow of silence.

Frances McDormand, what the hell are you doing in this movie?

No, no. We get it. If we were duped into optimism by Coen brother involvement, what hope did you have? You couldn’t have known that the result would be a tiresome, embarrassing, un-funny, painful waste of 83 minutes.





Ice Queen

I, Tonya

by George Wolf

“There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.”

That snappy piece of dialog is just one of the sharp edges I, Tonya uses to place a decades-old scandal right at the heart of an American cultural shift that feels mighty familiar.

Director Craig Gillespie, armed with a whip-smart script and a stellar ensemble, comes at the Tonya Harding 1994 Olympic soap opera from the perfect side: all of them.

The screenplay, a new career high for Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Love the Coopers), breaks the fourth wall early and often, priming us for an array of “totally contradictory” testimony from these trailer-park super geniuses constantly pointing fingers at each other.

As Harding, Margot Robbie is electric, relishing the chance at a meaty lead role and proving worthy of every second she’s onscreen. We come to this film with any number of preconceived notions about Harding, so Robbie has to break through them and find the sympathetic layers.

She does, playing Harding as an unapologetic fighter, clinging to a sport that doesn’t want her while battling a cruel mother (certain Oscar nominee Allison Janney), an abusive husband in Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), an idiotic “bodyguard” with 007 delusions (Paul Walter Hauser) and eventually, a rabid public.

Or, maybe she was an ungrateful daughter and a scheming wife, in on the plan to hobble rival Nancy Kerrigan and eager to play the victim at her first opportunity.

Gillespie makes it a fascinating and darkly funny ride, with an undercurrent of bittersweet naivete. As the 1994 Winter Olympics get underway, we see Tonya’s drama play out alongside the birth of reality television, the rise of tabloid journalism and the start of the O.J.Simpson tragedy.

We would never be the same.

I, Tonya embraces the surreal nature of this tale but never mocks or condescends, even in its most comical moments. There’s poignancy here, too, plus tragedy nearly Greek in nature and a damn fine mix of real skating and visual trickery.

Never mind that East German judge. I, Tonya deserves the podium.

 

 

 





Behind the Bear

Goodbye Christopher Robin

by George Wolf

Even a story born to combat sadness can have a dark side, and Goodbye Christopher Robin explores one in a film that is perfectly acceptable without ever becoming truly memorable.

The story at its heart, of course, is Winnie the Pooh, the fantasy world A.A. Milne created for his young son which became a cultural touchstone that still thrives today.

Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returned from service in WWI with recurring flashbacks and an ambition to move beyond writing light entertainment and produce a work that would persuade readers to fully appreciate the horror and folly of war.

Retreating from the bustle of London to the solitude of the English countryside with this wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and son Christopher (Will Tilston in an incredibly cute debut), Milne finds no inspiration until the boy (known to the family as “Billy Moon”) asks his dad to write him a story.

Extravagant wealth soon follows, along with intrusive fame, bringing confusion and heartache to a little boy who doesn’t understand why he has to share his life with the world, or why a father would write about his son instead of for him. Comfort often comes not from his parents, but from the emotional closeness of his relationship with nanny Olive aka “Nou” (Kelly Macdonald).

Director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, My Week with Marilyn) wraps it all in a wondrous, often childlike sheen, but juggles too many contrasting themes to find a truly resonate focus. The script, from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, offers fly-by attention to war, childhood, celebrity infatuation and those stereotypically British stiff upper lips.

The entire cast is game, the execution workmanlike and the story endearing. But Goodbye Christopher Robin, much like the family it spotlights, too often settles for safety over emotional connection.

 





Losing the Will to Live

Suicide Squad

by Hope Madden

Through it all – casting changes, recuts, reshoots, August opening date – I remained cautiously optimistic. Suicide Squad could be good.

Why? Because the villains are the most interesting part of the DC universe and the idea of a film unburdened by some superhero or another’s conflicted conscience or internal crisis, free to revel in the wing-nut chaos of nothing but villains felt fresh and risky.

And there’s not one but nine villains … yeah, nine is a lot. It could be tough to piece together a story that feels less like a cattle call than a coherent film.

But Suicide Squad offers a marginally promising cast. Will Smith is tired, but Jared Leto (hot off his Oscar) as the Joker can’t help but pique interest, and Margot Robbie’s done nothing but impress (until Tarzan, anyway). Plus – get this – the genuinely excellent Viola Davis takes on ringleader duties in a film that corrals all the nastiest bad guys for a black ops mission against a meta-human menace.

When Viola Davis can’t deliver, your movie is doomed.

Suicide Squad is doomed.

Writer/director David Ayer has quietly built a solid career with incrementally more thoughtful, more brooding, more violent action films. For those who thought the DC catastrophe Batman V Superman was dark, Ayer was the promise of something truly gritty.

And what more does he need? All the “worst of the worst” gathered together, leading a mission to save the world or die trying – and maybe die when they’re finished, because we certainly can’t let them out, right? They’re the worst of the worst!

Except for the one who really just wants to know his daughter’s OK. Or the one who’s reformed, his conscience keeping him from fighting this fight. Or the one who’s not bad, she’s just in love. Or the others who are absolutely useless to any mission and are here just to clutter up an over-packed, under-impressive landscape of bloodless action and uninspired set pieces.

Ayer has shown promise across his previous five films, but self-serious drama tends to be his undoing. Imagine how he struggles with tone in this would-be flippant exercise in comic book self-indulgence. Robbie and Smith try to instill some badass levity, but any success is due to their talent and timing because there’s not a single funny line in the film.

Leto’s little more than a glorified cameo in a landscape so overstuffed with needless characters that you’re almost distracted from the stunning plot holes and absence of narrative logic.

Suicide Squad is not going to save this disappointing summer – you should save yourself the aggravation.

Verdict-1-5-Stars





Gorilla Tactics

The Legend of Tarzan

by George Wolf

Me Tarzan. You Jane?

No, this apeman has a slightly larger vocabulary.

You’ll hear that famous phrase in The Legend of Tarzan, but only for ironic purposes. This new reboot takes its cue from recent superhero films that have embraced the darker side of their legend.

We drop in on Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) in the late 1880s, years after his return to Greystoke Manor and the name John Clayton, as he’s living the aristocratic life with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) in a London mansion full of servants. Flashback segments do fill us in on the couple’s jungle past, but credit screenwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad with a welcome pivot from the usual origin story formula.

Clayton is called back to the wilds of the Congo thanks to a devious plan from Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), special envoy to Belgian King Leopold. Rom can deliver a fortune in diamonds to his King, but only if he can deliver Tarzan to a Congolese chieftain (Djimon Hounsou) looking to settle an old score.

So John and Jane head back “home,” with U.S. envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in tow, but when Rom puts his kidnapping plan in motion, Tarzan’s particular set of skills come out to play.

Director David Yates, who guided the Harry Potter film series to an epic conclusion, keeps his camera fluid, his landscapes beautifully panoramic and the action frequently thrilling.  Yes, it gets a bit silly and a bit more anachronistic, but Yates brings an ambitious scope to this modern Tarzan, with a respectable side of social conscience even when it panders.

Skarsgard’s chiseled physique certainly looks the part, and his somewhat robotic lack of range serves him well here. Robbie provides plenty of spunk, but her Victorian-era Jane could have just as easily beamed down from last Halloween. As for their chemistry…hey, those CGI jungle animals look fantastic!

Waltz and Jackson are well, Waltz and Jackson.

It probably won’t set the stage for a string of blockbuster sequels – and to its credit, isn’t trying to – but for most of its nearly two hours, this new Tarzan really swings.

Verdict-3-0-Stars