Tag Archives: 2020

Birds of Prey

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response that Suicide Squad received across the board, critics and fans agreed on one thing: Margot Robbie was born to play Harley Quinn. 4 years later, the anarchic anti-heroine gets her own spinoff of sorts in Birds Of Prey, whose subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn implies more of an origin story than a group outing. Like its full title, the film is similarly at odds with whether it wants to be a team-up movie a-la The Avengers or a more personal story centered around its central figure. More often than not, it splits the difference between these two ideals, which yields intermittently entertaining but ultimately frustrating results.

We pick up with Quinn after she’s been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Joker. The break-up sends shock waves throughout Gotham City, as Harley’s association with the Clown Prince offered her a level of power and protection that has since evaporated. This puts her in the crosshairs of nearly every lowlife that she’s wronged in the past, including the eccentric but ruthless gangster Roman Sionis (Evan McGregor). In order to square things with Sionis and his crew, Quinn is tasked with finding a diamond with banking codes embedded inside. Along the way, she recruits the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sionis’ personal driver Black Canary (Journey Smollett-Bell).

Stylistically and narratively, Birds of Prey feels like the DCEU’s response to the Deadpool series, specifically Deadpool 2 since both protagonists spend most of their runtimes shackled to a teenaged accomplice. Both Deadpool and Harley Quinn exert full meta control over their respective movies, cheekily relaying their own version of the stories with wall-to-wall voiceover. Quinn, and by extension director Cathy Yan, take things a step further by zig-zagging the narration back and forth through time to introduce new characters and context to the plot. It’s a fun trick the first time or two but it doesn’t take long for it to disrupt the momentum of the overall plot and leave too many plates spinning at once.

Thematically, the film does break new ground within the comic book genre in the ways that it overtly takes aim at misogyny, power dynamics and toxic masculinity. Its perspective on how the world has mistreated these female characters and how they’ve overcome their distinct struggles is undeniably a valuable one. It’s just a shame that these worthwhile themes are grafted onto a routine, McGuffin-driven plot with a predictable, albeit rollicking and well-choreographed, climax. The film’s outspoken feminist agenda is often persuasive but does overstep and strain credibility at points, as when Sionis mercilessly humiliates a female club patron for reasons that seem contrived even for a supervillain.

As in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s committed work as Harley Quinn is the film’s strongest point. She brings the same brand of gleeful mischief and batty charisma to the role but she also finds new notes to play with in order to develop the character further. We see her smooth talk her way out of seemingly impossible confrontations and utilize her PhD as she psychologically sizes up criminals on the spot. This character obviously has enough depth to sustain her own feature and Robbie is clearly game for it, which makes the decision to shoehorn in the rest of these Birds of Prey that much more disappointing. When it comes to narrative ambition, Birds of Prey flies a bit too close to the sun.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Sonic the Hedgehog, starring Jim Carrey and James Marsden, brings the blue ball of energy from the Sega video game line to the big screen as he hides out on Earth and avoids the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, re-imagines the Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure for American audiences as an avalanche during a family ski vacation throws things into disarray.
Fantasy Island, starring Michael Peña and Maggie Q, is the latest Blumhouse thriller about an island resort where guests have to solve the island’s mystery in order to escape with their lives.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gretel & Hansel

The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel has been adapted for the screen countless times, most recently and regrettably in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and now we have yet another take. Gretel & Hansel, the latest from The Blackcoat’s Daughter director Oz Perkins, primarily sticks to the narrative beats that will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the story. We have the titular sister and brother, played respectively by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, who stumble upon a mysterious house in the middle of the dark woods. The homeowner, played by Alice Krige, accommodates them with a table full of endless feasts but the longer they stay, the more nefarious her intentions become.

Perkins uses this setup as a jumping off point to tell a more personalized coming-of-age tale centered around Gretel, whose prominence in the story is suggested by the film’s title. This time around, she’s twice as old as Hansel and is unquestionably the one in charge. She’s also been gifted with magical abilities, which are recognized and further developed by the witch who resides at that ever-tempting house. The focus on a female protagonist struggling with the temptation of witchcraft in a bleak setting is strikingly similar to 2016’s The Witch, even though the results here aren’t as compelling as they are in that excellent period horror piece.

Gretel & Hansel also resembles The Witch in its keen attention to production design and cinematography, which are often first-rate and enough to make it worth recommending. The film is more interested in accumulating dread than slapping audiences in the face with overt scares and much of this done with the atmosphere that creeps at the edges of the frame. Cinematographer Galo Olivarez uses unconventional lighting schemes to capture the beauty and terror of this world, sometimes even within the same shot. One such image, in which Gretel’s face is lit both by the blue of the moonlight and the orange of a flickering flame, is hauntingly lovely and of a caliber that one might not expect from a horror movie unceremoniously released over Super Bowl weekend.

The main trouble in Gretel & Hansel comes from the underdeveloped screenplay by Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes, which doesn’t do quite enough to expand on the original fairy tale. Besides Gretel’s aforementioned personal journey, nearly everything else in the script feels like a distraction and filler to pad the already lean 87 minute runtime. Save a few scenes in the film’s opening with characters that are never seen nor heard from again, we spend the entirety of the movie with the trio of Gretel, Hansel and the Witch. That’s not inherently an issue but there isn’t enough character development between the trio to justify hanging the whole story on their shoulders.

In an attempt to patch up some of the shallow character work, Perkins includes an intermittent voiceover from Gretel, in which she ponders rhetorical questions like “is it wise to trust someone who appears when you need them?” These philosophical musings along with the lush landscapes give viewers an idea of what Terrence Malick may come up with if he were tasked to adapt a Grimm tale. Even though this voiceover rumination grows more pretentious as the movie goes on, I appreciate the artsy ambition in a genre that is often sorely in need of it. Gretel & Hansel is a classic case of style over substance but when the style is this superb, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the DC Comics baddie Harley Quinn her own spin-off in which she recruits other female vigilante to take down a crime lord.
The Lodge, starring Riley Keough and Jaeden Martell, is a psychological chiller about a soon-to-be stepmom who gets snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote cabin.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend are all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts for the Animated, Live Action and Documentary categories, which you can catch before Oscar Night on Sunday, February 9th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Turning

The haunted house movie genre is one that always seems to be in constant ebb and flow when it comes to quality. For every stellar entry like The Conjuring or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, we get forgettable titles like Winchester and Amityville: The Awakening. The Turning, Hollywood’s latest mangling of Henry James’ classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, sadly falls into the category of film that only exists to make the great ones seem greater by comparison. Despite starting with rich source material and incorporating some watchable rising stars into its cast, this redundant and horribly derivative would-be supernatural thriller offers very little in the way of fresh scares.

Set almost 100 years after James’ original tale, the story centers around kindergarten teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she takes a live-in nanny/tutor position for the recently orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). Helping manage the vast estate where the kids reside is housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who seems suspicious of Kate from the moment she steps onto the property. Although Kate and Flora seem to ease into a friendly relationship, Miles presents as much more abrasive and even lecherous to their new guest. It doesn’t take long for things to sour further as the haunts of the creepy manor materialize in the form of menacing apparitions that suggest a dark history.

Making the leap to feature films after crafting music videos for artists like Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, director Floria Sigismondi can’t find her voice within this hopelessly generic adaptation. In an all-too-rare bit of meta humor, Kate murmurs “this can’t be real” as she pulls up to the house for the first time and beholds the barrage of cliches that fall before her: the dilapidated mansion, the impossibly long driveway adorn with dead trees on either side and, naturally, the gloomy weather to match. The truth is, it’s all real, at least in the sense that Sigismondi is going to take every trick and trope associated with the spooky house genre deadly seriously from there on out.

Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, responsible for bringing The Conjuring to life, inelegantly stuff their script with suggestions as to what’s behind all of these creepy occurrences. The character work is especially thin, not leaving much meat on the bone for Davis and company to dig into past increasingly haunted facial expressions. The presence of props from pet tarantulas to porcelain dolls perpetuate a moody atmosphere that constantly comes across as contrived. Sigismondi assembles all of these tried-and-true gothic horror elements and tosses them into a blender, producing a bland purée that only the most gullible of teens will consume.

This is the kind of film that teases you for 90 minutes, dangling all manner of red herrings and half-reveals in front of our faces, until it finally gives the viewer the unfiltered truth in the end. If The Turning is remarkable in any way, it’s certainly in how unsatisfying and downright confusing a conclusion it offers as a bitter consolation prize for enduring its preceding narrative. Everyone who worked on the film should take comfort in knowing that most audience members will stay through the credits, likely to take a moment and wipe the perplexed looks off their faces. The Turning may indeed turn heads, even if it’s to the side to signify bewilderment.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Gretel and Hansel, starring Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, retells the dark fairy tale about a pair of siblings who get lost in the woods and stumble upon terrifying evil in the process.
The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively and Jude Law, is an international spy thriller that follows a woman who seeks to uncover the truth behind a plane crash that killed her family three years earlier.
Opening at Cinema Center is VHYes, starring Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon, a comedy shot entirely on VHS and Beta about a boy who accidentally records home videos over his parents’ wedding tape.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dolittle

Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. Recently capping off an eleven-year stretch as Iron Man in the obscenely lucrative Marvel films, in which he reportedly earned $75 million for his Endgame role alone, he could seemingly do whatever he’d like at this point. Given that, it’s downright bewildering that he would follow up the iconic superhero era of his career with Dolittle, a slapdash CGI trainwreck that’s as mindless as it is misguided. It’s neither thrilling nor funny, which is problematic for a film that purports to be an adventure comedy, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone over the age of the average kindergartener will get much from this bloated mess of a movie.

Mangling an untraceable South African/Scottish/Welsh accent, Downey plays Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive veterinarian who’s holed up in a mystical manor where he communicates with a menagerie of animals. When he gets word that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen deathly ill, he climbs atop his sassy ostrich and hightails it to Buckingham Palace alongside his companion creatures. He arrives to find that the Queen has been poisoned and that the cure can only be found on a remote island on the other side of the world. With his new human apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett) and animal friends by his side, Dolittle sets out on a journey to retrieve the precious antidote.

Atop the heap of beguiling creative decisions behind Dolittle is the choice to have Stephen Gaghan, the mind behind hard-hitting political dramas like Traffic and Syriana, direct and co-write this would-be family entertainment. Besides 2016’s Gold, he hasn’t directed anything since Syriana back in 2005 and nothing in his previous work would indicate that he would even be a close fit for something this toothless and juvenile. He and his three co-writers strain hard for laughs that, aside from a misjudged Godfather reference, are aimed squarely at youngsters. Even though the story is ostensibly set in 19th century England, the animals interject frequently in 21st century American vernacular, as when an octopus warns Dolittle “snitches get stitches.”

The depressingly overqualified voice cast, which includes recent Academy Award winners like Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, does their best to give life to their lifeless CG counterparts. Spencer, whose duck character is actually named Dab-Dab, is saddled with anachronistic clunkers like “do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?” It’s difficult to imagine what could have compelled this many talented actors to sign up for this freak show in the first place. Most of the film is so on-the-nose obvious about what it’s trying to do and who it’s trying to appeal to, it plays out like one of the parody trailers that opened the Downey-starring Tropic Thunder.

The film’s peaks far too early with a lovely, hand-drawn animated prologue outlining Dolittle’s long-lost love and I would have much preferred watching a story carried out in this style. Instead, we have to bear the sight of Downey mugging against computer-generated cacophony with at least half of his lines sounding like they were re-recorded in post-production. With a $175 million budget, you may come in expecting Marvel-level visual effects but the fantastical creations here are much more dubiously rendered; other non-animal shots, like one in which Stubbins leaps from one part of a bridge to another, are equally unconvincing. Tepid and tedious, Dolittle is an endless parade of wasted talent both on and off-camera.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam, is the latest action caper from Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie about a British drug lord attempting to sell his empire to a group of Oklahoma billionaires.
The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, is a supernatural horror update on “The Turn of the Screw” about a newly appointed nanny who looks after two disturbed orphans in a haunted Maine estate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup