Movie Review: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

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Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) adopts a hyena in her highly-anticipated solo film Birds of Prey. (Source: WhatCulture)

Harley Quinn made her silver-screen debut in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Although far from good, Margot Robbie easily stole the show with her dark, offbeat humor and her insane nature. She was so good that Warner Brothers and DC decided to make a spin-off. Joker and Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn are the only movies in the DCEU to influence the films of Martin Scorsese. The newest entry in the DCEU is miles better than Suicide Squad, but it comes across as disappointing.

After the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn (Robbie) breaks up with the Joker (good riddance). She takes up roller derby and adopts a pet hyena. Meanwhile, a new crime boss arrives in Gotham City in the form of Roman Sionis a.k.a. The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who rips faces off of his victims. After putting a target on her back, Harley must join three other vigilantes–Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), The Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to take him down and save a young girl named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).

The movie isn’t as awful as one would expect. Robbie still gives a lot of her sassy energy with a rougher edge, even though it looks as if she got her wardrobe at Hot Topic or Spencer’s. However, the supporting characters have a lot more backstory than its protagonist. I particularly enjoy Winstead’s Huntress, who is out for vengeance after dealing with a dark past. Whenever a movie is not entirely good, it’s always great to see McGregor having a blast. This movie is no exception.

Birds of Prey has a similar structure to Deadpool, where it doesn’t shy away from its self-awareness. When it overdoes it, the movie comes across as a little awkward (not to mention the abundance of narration). The pacing is all over the place–ranging from a dark mafia film to a quirky, lighthearted action film with cartoonish violence–which worsens the flow of the narrative. Although there are fun action set pieces (including one set inside a prison), the last act feels anticlimactic. It’s a messy film with bright spots here and there.

5.5/10

Movie Review: The Gentlemen

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Mickey Pearson pulls a gun in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. And also, don’t EVER mess with Matthew McConaughey! (Source: Cinema Blend)

Fresh from directing the live-action version of Aladdin, writer-director Guy Ritchie returns to his roots of adult R-rated crime-thrillers. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are two from his filmography that have become smash hits in the UK and cult classics in North America. Those films showcase Ritchie as “The British Tarantino”, with his dark wit and unexpected violence. The Gentlemen, his latest film that received modest box-office returns in the U.S., definitely deserves its R-rating, which is laden with profanity, graphic violence, and comedy.

Born in poverty in Texas, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) owns the biggest marijuana empire in London while attending Oxford University. If anyone crosses the line, Mickey might put a bullet in their skull. He decides to sell his business to live a happy life with his wife Rosalind (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, who replaced Kate Beckinsale days after shooting began). This causes a chain of events: from a group of gangsters attempting to get a piece of him to a flamboyant Cockney private detective named Fletcher (a scene-stealing Hugh Grant) investigating the entire situation, typed as a screenplay.

There is plenty to like in Ritchie’s return to adult comic-thrillers. There is enough tension to keep the film afloat. However, the razor-sharp wit and lightning-fast pacing of Ritchie’s writing and directing is what makes The Gentlemen all the more worth it. 

The all-star cast, that also includes Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, and Jeremy Strong, has pitch-perfect timing with humor and being badass. McConaughey (who refuses to play roles with any accent other than his native Texas twang) gives enough suave energy wearing a variety of suits and showing off his violent nature. Charlie Hunnam, who worked with Ritchie in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, has never been better playing Mickey’s right-handed man who does Fletcher a favor of pitching his script. Dockery’s Rosalind is easily the opposite of Lady Mary, who never looked more badass than holding a tiny golden pistol. This movie also serves as a good audition for Golding to potentially be the next James Bond.

The biggest drawback is the conclusion being a mess. Nevertheless, The Gentlemen still has twists, turns, and plenty of dark humor. The constant racial slurs might not be for everyone’s liking, which is understandable. But–there is nothing more than having a good time with a new release so early in the year. I have a feeling this is going to gain a cult following for years to come.

8.5/10

Movie Review: Troop Zero

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Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) tries to make her dreams a reality in Troop Zero, the latest Amazon Prime original film. (Source: The New York Times)

Troop Zero, the sleeper hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, has finally hit the smaller screens of Amazon Prime Video The preview has promised an average family dramedy set in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. The female-writing duo Bert and Bertie adapt their directing debut from the 2010 play Christmas and Jubilee Behold The Meteor Shower, written by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild). It showcases a timely story of female empowerment, but I wish the movie moved me more than it should have.

Set in Georgia in 1977, Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) is a quirky 9-year-old girl obsessed with outer space after the death of her mother. She is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to join the Birdie Scouts Jamboree, a talent show where the winners can have their singing voices be put on a Golden Record to be played on the Voyager spacecraft. As an outsider among her peers, Christmas goes out of her way to create her own troop of misfit kids to get one chance to have her voice heard.

It’s hard not to admire the vintage production design. The attire, the cars, and the architecture are all on-point. The themes involving death are surprisingly handled with maturity. Grace, who has impressed me since the 2017 film Gifted, never ceases to amaze with her charm and energy. She leads a terrific diverse cast including Allison Janney, as Prinicipal Massey who assigns the troop, and Viola Davis as Miss Rayleen, who works for Christmas’ father’s (Jim Gaffigan) law practice in his camper and eventually becomes the head of her troop to earn enough badges in order to compete in the talent show. Its cutesy, sugar-coated nonsense is enough to make up for its flaws.

Although the second act of Troop Zero hits right at home, the uneven tone, awkward attempts at humor, and its familiar narrative all falter a bit. Nevertheless, it’s still a rock-solid movie that families with older kids will find some enjoyment during the winter. Not to mention, the soundtrack is top-notch. There is a scene that pays tribute to the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, where our protagonists walk in slow-motion to George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag”. Also, the use of David Bowie’s music couldn’t be more appropriate.

6.5/10

Movie Review: 1917

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It’s a race against time in Sam Mendes’ latest masterpiece 1917. (Source: Military.com)

There have been plenty of great movies set during World War I. The 1925 classic The Big Parade became one of the finest masterpieces of the silent era. However, it wasn’t until two years later, when Wings became the first film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Over the years, famous filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory) and Steven Spielberg (War Horse) also brought their A-game to capture the horrors and outcomes of the Great War. The 2004 film Joyeux Noel captured an unbelievable story about the British and German troops making an agreement to stop fighting for one day to celebrate Christmas.

None of them compare the brutality and wonder of 1917, the latest collaboration of director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (their first since Skyfall). Using clever filmmaking and editing techniques, the movie makes it look and feel like one seamless, continuous shot through the trenches of France. Fresh from winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture and directing, dethroning Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in the box office last weekend, and receiving 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, this movie is worth all the hype.

The movie opens on April 6, 1917, the same day the U.S. would enter the war. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) enlists two young British soldiers–Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay)–to deliver an urgent message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), of the Devonshire Regiment. Here’s the catch: He and his army are across enemy lines planning an attack on the Germans, who have taken refuge at the Hindenburg Line. The two race against time to avoid getting killed and possibly save 1,600 lives.

This isn’t the first movie to use the one-shot effect. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope and the 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman are both wonderful movies that have achieved the effect. Expect some edits, but Deakins is the perfect cinematographer to shoot a movie like this. It makes the audience feel like we are with these two soldiers through the duration of the mission. The camera follows in front of them, behind them, or beside them. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be for the crew to determine which direction the actors have to go. With brilliant editing, there are a lot of shots that will send chills down your spine.

At the film’s core, it’s a story about survival and compassion during the toughest of times. Mendes, who dedicated the film to his late father (who actually fought in World War I), does an outstanding job keeping the stakes and suspense higher than a bald eagle soaring through the sky with his direction and writing. The marvelous cast including British favorites Cumberbatch, Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden are given smaller roles than the two unknown actors who have long careers ahead of them. As the two young soldiers, Chapman and MacKay beautifully capture the courage and sympathy on this dangerous mission. The astounding sets and Thomas Newman’s excellent score are also enough to make 1917 a WWI epic for the ages. Sorry, Joker, but this is certainly the film to beat in this year’s Oscars.

10/10

Movie Review: The Lighthouse

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Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Wake (Willem Dafoe) get on each other’s nerves in Robert Eggers’ sophomore feature The Lighthouse. (Source: Slate)

Robert Eggers is becoming one of the most versatile filmmakers in the horror genre. His debut, The Witch, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival (with a nationwide release the following year) with critical acclaim. Its subtle nature didn’t win everyone over, the Old English dialogue, the creepy atmosphere and music, and its portrayal of a family’s grief during the time before the Salem Witch Trials was wonderfully brought on by Eggers’ writing and directing (not to mention being a breakthrough role for Anya Taylor-Joy). This time, the New Hampshire native shifts the time forward for his second feature, The Lighthouse

Set in Maine in the late 1800s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a tiny island to serve as a “wickie” (or, lighthouse keeper) with the veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Hoping for a fresh start, Winslow spends an entire month trying to get used to Wake barking orders at him. As a storm approaches, they begin to get on each other’s nerves.

Eggers did a lot of research for this movie–from the location to the period accuracy. The dialogue (in which the characters sound like pirates) is influenced by the works of Sarah Orne Jewett. From visiting and studying the lighthouses, the production designers had to build a 70-foot lighthouse. Although filmed in Nova Scotia, he and co-writer (and brother) Max Eggers both capture the beauty and spirit of Maine to a T.

Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, The Lighthouse is a darkly comedic, trippy, and batshit crazy film relying on psychological terror, and a slight improvement over The Witch. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography (shot on 35mm film with a 1:19.1 aspect ratio) and Mark Korven’s score are enough to give the film a sense of claustrophobia. Dafoe and Pattinson are so good working of each other as two men who hold secrets that will shock audiences and would require repeated viewings. Once the storm hits, they both descent into madness. The terrifying imagery is enough to keep you up at night. An instant horror classic!

10/10

Movie Review: Zombieland: Double Tap

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Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), Wichita (Emma Stone), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are back to kill more zombies in the sequel to 2009’s surprise hit Zombieland. (Source: Salon)

2009’s sleeper hit Zombieland was one gory, hilarious road trip. It was a clever spin on the now borderline tiresome zombie subgenre featuring one of the funniest cameos by one of the funniest actors. There is great chemistry between the main cast who have perfect comedic timing. After years of being in production hell, Ruben Fleischer returns as director after several misfires (including the uneven Gangster Squad and the dismal Venom), as well as the four leads–Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin–to give us familiar gags and nostalgia as well as some fresh ideas in the long-awaited sequel Zombieland: Double Tap. In most cases, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

After the events of its predecessor, America is still overrun by zombies. Columbus (Eisenberg) has never been happier in his life; living in an abandoned White House with the three other survivors–the gunslinging, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee (Harrelson), the sarcastic Wichita (Stone), and the rebellious Little Rock (Breslin)–who came together as a family near the end of the first film. Columbus decides to take his relationship with Wichita to the next level. When she learns about Little Rock going on the road with hippie Berkeley (Avan Jogia), she joins with Columbus and Tallahassee, which means they encounter more zombies and other survivors including a dumb blonde named Madison (Zoey Deutch).

Before any of you get worried, this sequel is a nonstop blast. It recycles the same gags and it’s not ashamed of poking fun at its predecessor. There is more rule-making and rule-breaking, more gore, more special effects, and more zombies with personalities (ranging from dumb to semi-intelligent). The action set pieces are just as fun as ever (of course, the movie would play a Metallica song during the opening credits). Although it isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious as its predecessor, it has plenty of laughs to have audiences in stitches.

It’s great to see the four leads mature over the years. Eisenberg’s Columbus is still the offbeat, fast-talking geek adding more rules to survive the zombie apocalypse. Along with Harrelson’s Tallahassee (who makes this movie as worthwhile as before), they go back on the road again. The movie also has memorable additions to the cast including Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as two guys who are similar to Tallahassee and Columbus. Deutch is a hoot-and-a-half as Madison, whose stupid decision-making might get her and others into trouble. Rosario Dawson is straight-up awesome as Nevada, the owner of an Elvis Presley-themed motel near Graceland, who bonds with Tallahassee over the late singer. Tallahassee’s anecdote about him singing and dancing to “Hound Dog” like Elvis on top of a cafeteria table will have you smiling.

Zombieland: Double Tap is a sequel that didn’t need to happen, but it’s great to see the actors back in action. Make sure you stick around during the end credits. Trust me, you will not regret it.

8/10

Movie Review: Joker

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Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) flips the tables on society in Todd Phillips’ dark re-telling of the Joker. (Source: Observer)

Just like Batman, the Joker has been portrayed by numerous actors who give different portrayals to each of them. Most famous ones include Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger (in which he, posthumously, won an Oscar for The Dark Knight). The only terrible portrayal is, indeed, Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, who plays more as a gangster than the Clown Prince of Crime. Now–it Joaquin Phoenix’s turn in director Todd Phillips’ (Old School, The Hangover) dark, gritty take on the villain’s origins focusing more on the protagonist’s psyche.

Set in the early 1980s, Gotham City is stricken with crime and unemployment. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has a neurological disorder that makes him laugh at inappropriate times. He works as a clown entertainer, and lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a small, run-down apartment. Every night, they both stay up to watch a late-night show with host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur pursues his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. One night, he invites his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother, to a show. Then, things start to enter a downward spiral until he puts on white face paint and dyes his hair green to become the infamous Joker.

I appreciate how Phillips, co-writer Scott Silver, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher give Gotham City an unsubtle yet vintage feel (there is no CGI at all; thumbs up for practicality). The director has used influences from the films of Martin Scorsese before. Joker is no exception. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are two of the film’s biggest influences. It involves our anti-hero making his target with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullon), the city’s richest person who is running for mayor. At the same time, Arthur proves he can be part of a society that seems to be his biggest enemy. “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a f—ing comedy,” he says in a pivotal moment.

Not surprisingly, Phoenix throws Leto’s version out of the water. He gets everything right on the money–his physicality (he lost a whopping 52 pounds for the role), his evil laughter, and not ashamed to show his violent side or dance the night away. When the Joker makes his dream a reality, he gives a monologue that will knock your socks off. However, his performance is not as amazing as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line or Theodore Twombly in Her. He leads a rock-solid supporting cast including De Niro, who has never been this good in a long time as the late-night talk-show host who seems to be laughing at our protagonist.

The movie, however, is far from perfect. It’s easy to see why it has become one of the year’s most controversial movies. It’s unpleasant in every sense of the word. The violent, gritty nature might be not for everyone to stomach. And finally, its social commentary on the social structure could have been explored more. Joker didn’t bore me for a second. The origins are compelling enough, and Phoenix’s performance is enough to recommend the movie. I might not see it again anytime soon, but I’m somewhat glad this movie exists. Oh–and I like the use of Frank Sinatra here.

7/10