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Tue04072020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

After being the only thing worth anyone’s time in Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn gets her own movie in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a marked improvement over the film that featured Margot Robbie’s first go at the role.

Unfortunately, “improved” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”

There’s something askew plot-wise in Birds of Prey—specifically, it doesn’t really have a plot, and the shards of plot it does have are presented sloppily. The movie hops around time spasmodically, like a tweaker on a pogo stick—and while I love Robbie, her Harley Quinn shtick can grate at times.

(By the way, I’m watching Margot on Hot Ones as I write this review, and she’s giving a captivating performance on this YouTube series—not as good as Shia LaBeouf’s performance on the show, but still. She cannot handle her hot wings. I’m actually fearing for her life as I watch this. I won’t give away the ending.)

Anyway, Harley Quinn is joined by the Birds of Prey this time out, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) all get high marks for what they bring to the party. The basic plot involves bad-guy Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), trying to get a big diamond from a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco). That’s about it for story.

Much of the film is spent talking about the Joker, which is strange, because this movie is supposed to be proof that the Birds of Prey don’t need the Joker in their movie. Harley broke up with the Joker, so, mercifully, we don’t have to endure Jared Leto’s take on the character again. Get that plot element out of the way, and let’s move on, right? Nope: The film contains near-constant references to the fact that the Joker is not in this movie. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson seem afraid to let go of the Clown Prince of Crime as a plot presence. Newsflash: Nobody cares about the Suicide Squad incarnation of Joker. He was quite underwhelming. It’s all about Joaquin Phoenix now.

The movie, despite being a bit of a fluster-cuck, is sporadically fun. There’s a running bit involving the perfect egg sandwich that is pretty good. The ass-kicking scenes, during which the Birds fly into action, are kinetic and have pop. McGregor’s Sionis has a sadomasochistic relationship with his henchman, Victor (Chris Messina), that’s good for some laughs. And, I love, love, love Bruce, Harley’s pet hyena, named after a certain morose billionaire.

Of the Birds, Smollett-Bell registers the highest as Black Canary, a character who deserves her own movie. Smollett-Bell has the sort of onscreen presence that does not show up that often. She’s done some good work in the past, but she really makes a mark here. Rosie Perez hasn’t been this much fun since Pineapple Express; here, she’s a tough Gotham cop who is willing to bend the rules to get the job done. The always-reliable Winstead is good as The Huntress, although she’s a bit underused.

Robbie is still fun, but the film’s effort to make her a kinder, warmer Harley Quinn renders her a slight bit boring at times. She’s better when she is pure nasty with a little bit of funny. This movie asks her to be a constantly hyper, safer character who’s perhaps a bit too heroic. That’s a mistake—and the sequence in which Harley re-enacts the iconic Marilyn Monroe routine from Gentleman Prefer Blondes is just plain dumb.

Harley Quinn will be back for the James Gunn-helmed The Suicide Squad, but I’m thinking the failures of this installment might put future Harley-centered ventures on hold. Harley and her Birds of Prey have a lot of potential, but their first film together misses the mark. It also needed at least 10 more minutes of Bruce the Hyena.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Charlize Theron is uncanny as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, a hit-and-miss take on the sexual-harassment scandals that plagued Fox News thanks to the deplorable Roger Ailes, played here by John Lithgow under a lot of makeup.

The movie is propped up by terrific work from Theron, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as a composite character representing the many women who were assaulted or harassed by the likes of Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

Director Jay Roach is all over the place with his tone, with the film veering back and forth between dark comedy and serious drama. It never finds a balance, but the film has some good moments, especially thanks to Theron, who is amazing in every second she spends onscreen (and the makeup work is Oscar-worthy as well). Roach blows it with his portrayals of Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) and Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind); they come off as bad impersonations rather than true characters.

What should’ve been an important film comes off as a partial failure. Still, Bombshell is worth watching for Theron, Kidman and Robbie.

Bombshell opens Thursday, Dec. 19, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The ninth movie from Quentin Tarantino is a dreamy doozy—his most unapologetically Tarantinian film yet. History and conventionality be damned: QT is behind the camera, and he favors mayhem and artistic license over conventionality and facts.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood captures the 1960s film scene and culture as it is dying—and dying hard. Through the Tarantino storytelling lens, they die in mysterious and hallucinogenic ways.

We get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as insecure, has-been actor Rick Dalton, and his trusty stuntman, Cliff Booth. Dalton’s career has devolved into playing bad guys on weekly installments of TV’s F.B.I.—past his prime and blackballed. Booth is delegated to driving him around and being his confidante.

The setup allows Tarantino to go hog wild with ’60s visuals and songs. Hollywood is a monumental achievement on art- and sound-direction fronts. Some of Tarantino’s soon-to-be most-famous shots are in this movie, including a crane shot over a drive-in screen that dropped my jaw. The soundtrack pops with the likes of Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Jose Feliciano, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The looks and sounds are so authentic that you might find yourself wondering if Dalton and Booth were real people. They were not, but they are based on folks like Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Hal Needham.

The most notable real-person character would be Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate, played beautifully by Margot Robbie. She’s the luminous center of the movie, with Tarantino and Robbie taking the opportunity to show Tate as the beautiful, promising person and star Tate was rather than the footnote she’s become in the annals of Charles Manson’s bloody history. This is the first movie since her death that honestly pays homage to her rather than simply making her part of the Manson family rampage.

The Manson family plays a big part in Tarantino’s twisted fairy tale. The fictional Dalton happens to live next to Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, while Booth pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch. The Spahn Ranch is where the Manson family squatted, and Booth has a sit-down with Spahn himself (played by super-craggy Bruce Dern). Unlike recent movies that depict the Manson family as having some strange level of grace (Charlie Says), Tarantino shows them as bumbling, idiotic and pathetic. It’s a solid choice.

DiCaprio, in his first role since taking home his much-deserved Oscar for The Revenant (and his second role with Tarantino after Django Unchained), will probably find himself in the running for an Oscar again. He’s a nervous, hilarious mess as Dalton, a man prone to crying in public over his career, yet still capable of blowing up a TV set with tremendous acting fireworks. He has a trailer rant and a hostage-taking-bad-guy speech that now stand as two of his finest acting moments.

In what is also his second teaming with Tarantino (after Inglourious Basterds), Pitt is fantastically funny as a man coasting through life with little care in the world. He’ll face off with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a set he’s working just to shush his big mouth, or he’ll buy an acid-dipped cigarette for kicks. And when he smokes that cigarette, very strange things happen, and the wonderful Pitt laugh is put to its best use since he played Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The end of the 1960s was bona fide nutty, and this is a nutty movie. It’s also quite heartfelt and moving.

Tarantino says he might only have one more movie in him after this one. I’m curious to see if he can top himself one more time, or if he just does that rumored Star Trek movie. Either way, Tarantino has left a distinctive mark on American cinema, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adds to his perfect track record: He’s made nine movies, and all of them are at least good. This one is one of his best.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Admit it: When Nancy Kerrigan got kneecapped by folks connected to Tonya Harding all those years ago, you just knew there would be a big Hollywood movie about it someday. Well, here it is, starring Margot Robbie as Harding—and it’s funny, nasty stuff.

Allison Janney is a sinister hoot as Tonya’s nasty mom, while Robbie proves, weirdly enough, that she was born to play Tonya Harding.

The movie is the subject some post-release controversy, as some people are claiming director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers tried to turn Harding into some kind of hero—an innocent in the scheme to take Kerrigan out and pave the way for Harding to become the world’s skating champion. Nah … Harding is not portrayed in a positive light here. It’s just that her mom is the greater villain—a manipulative, back-stabbing monster who Janney brings to hilarious fruition. As she brow-beats Tonya from her first moments on ice through her Olympic dreams, Janney’s version of Harding’s mother is a brash cinematic representation of bad parenting.

Robbie embodies Harding’s whiny, headstrong persona, staying faithful to the glimpses we’ve gotten of her through the years—especially when she challenges some judges giving her bad scores. Gillespie and his crew also do a good job of making it look like Robbie is doing all of the skating. (She isn’t; it’s a combo of Robbie, stunt women and CGI.)

The whole Tonya Harding episode of sports history was surreal and strange—and thankfully, so is this movie.

I, Tonya is now playing at the Century Theatres at the River and XD (71800 Highway 111; 760- 836-1940).

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a skunk blast to the face for those of us looking for a fun superhero movie earlier this year. Well, Suicide Squad looked like a fine chance for DC Comics movies to get back on the right track. With David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch) at the helm, and a cast including Will Smith, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad had the potential to be a fun blast of movie mischief.

Sadly, Suicide Squad does nothing to improve the summer blockbuster season. In fact, it is the equivalent of a big, stinking torpedo of shit. After a first-half buildup that does a decent job of introducing bad-guy characters like Deadshot (Smith), Harley Quinn (Robbie) and The Joker (Leto), the movie becomes a spastic colon, resulting in that big turd referred above.

The script—if one could call it that—involves some nonsense with a government sort named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembling a squad of villains to help in case a superhero goes bad. An alliance of bad guys is formed that includes Deadshot, Quinn, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and others. When a kooky villain called Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) starts some sort of apocalyptic tornado in the middle of Gotham, the Suicide Squad launches into action.

I have no real idea what the Enchantress was up to with her blue-tornado dance show extravaganza; man, it’s weird and confusing. She’s busting moves on some sort of stage while carrying on strange conversations with those questioning her motives. The Squad has to fight mushy humanoid monsters on their way to the Enchantress, and it’s unspeakably odd … in a bad way.

At the core of this mess are potentially fun performances from Smith and, especially, Robbie. Actually, a movie that simply featured these two would’ve been more than enough. Other villains like Diablo, Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Fantastic Mustache Man Pizza Pants (OK, I made that one up) don’t register and steal quality time from the characters that are interesting.

As for the much-hyped Joker: Jared Leto is reduced to a few preening moments; his part is nothing more than a glorified extended cameo. That marketing ploy that had you thinking the Joker was a leader of the Suicide Squad? It was a ruse. Much of his role consists of texts to Harley Quinn letting her know he’s on the way. Then he shows up, shows off his metal teeth and tattoos, and runs away laughing like an idiot.

Considering the power of some of Ayer’s past work, it’s surprising to witness such a mess. Perhaps this disaster is the result of studio meddling after the critical car crash that was Batman v Superman? Perhaps it’s because he never had a script worth shooting?

On the red carpet for this film’s premiere, Robbie and Smith both boasted that they signed on for the movie without seeing the script. They just wanted to work with Ayer. Well, I’m thinking Robbie and Smith should’ve gone against their instincts on this one. Demand a script the next time—and if that script involves a climax with somebody named the Enchantress delivering ponderous monologues while disco-dancing in front of a bright-blue dust devil, flanked by large humanoids with severe acne, run away … and run away fast.

Maybe there’s a three-hour cut of this thing somewhere that makes a little more sense. Or, based on the record-breaking opening weekend, maybe Warner Bros. knows by now that people will always shell out money for this crap, and quality is of no concern.

Suicide Squad is playing in a variety of formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Tina Fey makes a seamless transition to slightly more dramatic fare with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the story of a female journalist dropped into the middle of the war in Afghanistan.

Based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, the film has a M*A*S*H vibe to it when it is at its best. Fey gets plenty of chances to be funny, but this is her meatiest role yet; it allows her to show off a more serious side as an actress.

When her life in New York gets too humdrum, Kim (Fey) winds up in Afghanistan—despite having no major field-reporting experience. Before she knows it, she’s dodging RPGs and filing stories nobody cares about. She has standard long-distance relationship problems on top of that, along with an onsite romance with a freelance photographer (Martin Freeman).

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (co-directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love and Focus), the film pops on occasion, but spends a little too much time in dusty apartments rather than out in the field.

Margot Robbie is great, if a little underused, as another field reporter, while the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Alfred Molina perform admirably in supporting roles. The film doesn’t always click, but it remains watchable thanks to Fey and, to a lesser extent, Robbie. It stands as an interesting turning point in Fey’s career.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Adam McKay, the master behind broad-comedy gems Anchorman and Step Brothers, flexes his more-serious muscles for The Big Short, a take on the housing bubble that nearly destroyed the global economy.

An ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt makes this a funny yet scary look at how big banks nearly sent our economy back to the Stone Age. Carell is especially good as Mark Baum, a banker with a conscience who realizes a little too late that things are going down hill—and that his wealth is coming at the expense of many U.S. homeowners.

Bale is typically good as Michael Burry, a man who saw the storm coming and made a boatload of money by betting against the biggest monsters of modern finance. Pitt has fun as a financial guru who has taken to the hills in anticipation of the oncoming financial apocalypse, while Gosling gives the whole thing a nice Martin Scorsese vibe as a fast-talking banker/narrator.

This is a drama, but it’s often funny. (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…brilliant!) McKay shows that his chops go well beyond directing Will Ferrell with a fireman mustache.

The Big Short is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Three people and a couple of dogs try to figure things out in a post-apocalyptic world during Z for Zachariah, a strong acting exercise featuring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine.

Ann (Robbie) has been living a solitary life ever since a nuclear war wiped out the world’s population. She still lives on her father’s land, a place mysteriously immune from radiation clouds. With her trusty dogs by her side, she tills the land, hunts for game and longs for company.

That company comes in the form of Loomis (Ejiofor), whom she rescues after he takes a dip in a radioactive pond. After scrubbing him down and nursing him back to health, the two form a bond with romantic inclinations. Is their budding relationship something that would’ve happened under normal circumstances, or is it just a product of them apparently being the only two people left in America?

Robbie and Ejiofor are a decent pair. As the slightly jumpy Loomis slowly recovers, he helps Ann get her tractor started by figuring out how to manually get gas out of electric pumps. He likes the way she cooks fish; she likes the way he provides company. They’ll probably get fake-married and repopulate the Earth, right?

That question is pushed to the forefront when Captain Kirk himself shows up, all scruffy-looking and puppy-like. His name is Caleb (Pine), and he’s exactly what most God-fearing farm girls left alone would like to have show up at their doorstep. He’s gorgeous—and he says grace before a meal. He escaped from a mine after the bombs went off, and may or may not have killed a few people to survive. Loomis sees him as a threat, and he starts to get a little jealous.

OK, he gets very jealous—and the jealousy doesn’t mix well with his paranoia that Ann will eschew him because Caleb is white, and he is black. It’s also not helping matters that he wants to tear down the church Ann’s dad built in order to get wood to make a watermill. His need to provide electricity for the winter is creating a little friction.

There’s some male bonding during a turkey hunt and the deconstruction of the church, but it becomes increasingly clear that the farmhouse isn’t big enough for both men. It’s only a question of who will blink—or shoot—first.

The movie suffers a bit on the logic side: The characters walk around with no radiation suits or protection on their farm, but they get all geared up when they are a mere few hundred yards away, in town. Still, it’s a movie acted so well that you’ll forgive the silliness and inconsistencies.

Robbie, who has given some amazing performances in the recent past in The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, provides a sweet, grounded center for the movie. She makes a rather unlikely person seem altogether convincing.

Pine, who shows off his comic side in the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, is great as the mysterious drifter who seems awfully nice, but just might kill you for your girlfriend. Ejiofor gives Loomis a nice twitchiness. He offers the film’s most memorable performance as a good guy who had a few brain cells fried by radiation. He’s just not all there.

The film plays like a darker, almost-humorless version of Will Forte’s TV show The Last Man on Earth, with a little bit of the dour Viggo Mortensen film The Road mixed in. See it for the excellent performances, but please ignore the post-apocalyptic practices in the film. Should you survive a nuclear apocalypse, wear your radiation suit outdoors for something like 10,000 years before traipsing around in your bathing suit.

Z for Zachariah is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

It’s been a couple of years since Will Smith and his mopey kid inflicted After Earth upon us. Still, Smith has to eat, so it stands to reason he’s making movies again, even if his once-adoring public is a little gun-shy at this point.

Focus is a relatively small movie for Smith—it’s a semi-standard conman film that allows him to utilize his wisecracker persona. It does a good job making Smith likable again, even if he is playing a lying scumbag.

Nicky (Smith) is enjoying a fine meal at his hotel one night when Jess (Margot Robbie), who must be the hottest girl on God’s green Earth (plus all of the icy and desert parts, too), sits at his table.

This starts a movie-long relationship between the conman and the conwoman wannabe. Nicky co-runs a thievery ring that specializes in little scams and robberies; he claims that the smaller stuff adds up. Jess, his trainee with a perfect touch when it comes to lifting watches, craves the “big sting.” Nicky wants nothing to do with that.

Or does he?

The first half of the movie is actually quite good, as we see Nicky showing Jess the ropes and battling an urge to gamble. His gambling addiction leads to a high-stakes game of WTF? as Nicky squares off with a cigar-chomping BD Wong at a football game: Wong’s character overhears Nicky and Jess doing some small-time bets regarding the game, and he wants in. Needless to say, the stakes go very high.

The second half of the film goes a little off course as Nicky goes to work for racecar mogul Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) involving some sort of speed-reducing scheme. Gerald McRaney shows up as a grouchy bodyguard, and he helps to elevate the material.

The scams in this film—even the simple pickpocket stuff—are all outrageous to the point of implausibility. It also doesn’t help that Smith’s character is a selfish liar, and as a result, every big reveal is neither surprising nor clever—he’s clearly bullshitting all of the time. Still, the scams are somewhat fun to watch at times, even if they are a bit too nutty to take seriously.

The main reason to see the movie would be Robbie, who is taking the movie world by storm. She absolutely stunned in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and she is lined up to play Harley Quinn in the upcoming Suicide Squad (alongside Smith and Jared Leto). At just 24 years old, she’s one of the more interesting up-and-comers in Hollywood.

Will Smith is a solid second-best reason to see Focus. His role shows off his humorous, fast-talking side that was glaringly absent from After Earth and Seven Pounds. (He did have a funny cameo in Anchorman 2, and Men in Black 3 was OK.) His recent stinkers had me forgetting that I usually like his movies. It’s good to see him back in decent form.

The film is co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the team responsible for Crazy, Stupid, Love. and the vastly underrated Jim Carrey vehicle I Love You Phillip Morris. In some ways, Focus is their least-engaging venture yet, which says a lot about their abilities, because it’s still good. Next up for them is be the wartime comedy Fun House—starring Robbie.

As a conman movie, this one falls way short of films like The Sting, but is much better than crap like Now You See Me. As for Will Smith films, it also falls somewhere in the middle. As for Robbie … well, she steals the movie, lifting that sucker right off of Will Smith’s unsuspecting wrist.

Focus is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an explosive film—like a mortar full of deranged bliss.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2013’s best performance, plays slimeball stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, a real-life scumbag who made millions selling penny stocks at a Long Island, New York, brokerage. The movie, based on Belfort’s autobiography, takes people doing bad, bad things to an unparalleled extreme.

The film begins with a rosy-cheeked Belfort starting work at a big Manhattan brokerage firm, where a brash, cocaine-addicted broker (played by Matthew McConaughey, capping off an incredible year) is his mentor. Belfort is ready to take the world by storm in the late ’80s, but 1987’s Black Monday strikes, destroying his new employer and putting him out of work.

He winds up in a Long Island boiler room schilling penny stocks for 50 percent commission. No problem: The boy can sell, and people are writing checks.

Belfort, with the assistance of new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, bedazzled with impossibly white caps on his teeth), opens a shiny new brokerage that has a first-class appearance—even though he’s still just slinging penny stocks. This time, he’s slinging them at people with big money, under the guise that the stocks are going to explode into major-market players. They probably won’t—but rich people like and trust Belfort, so they throw money at him.

Where there’s money, there are decadent shenanigans—and this is where Scorsese takes the movie to crazed extremes. Midget-tossing, hookers, half-naked marching bands and goldfish-eating are the orders of the day—with all of these activities enhanced by massive drug and alcohol consumption.

As Ray Liotta did in Goodfellas, DiCaprio talks to the camera on occasion, often during highly elaborate tracking shots (which have become a Scorsese mainstay). It’s in these moments, and during Belfort’s drug-fueled speeches to his crew, when DiCaprio does his most-exhilarating acting to date. He is a formidable competitor for a Best Actor Oscar. He’s certainly my pick.

It’s not just DiCaprio’s verbal pyrotechnics that amaze; in this film, he proves he’s a physical actor with phenomenal talent. In a scene in which Belfort and Azoff consume 15-year-old Quaaludes with a delayed trigger, DiCaprio rivals the likes of Steve Martin and Charlie Chaplin in his physical comedy. What he does with a Ferrari door and his leg must be seen to be believed. I couldn’t believe it was DiCaprio, and figured they must have put his face on a stunt man’s body via CGI. Nope, it’s him.

Hill continues to prove that he has good dramatic chops, and Kyle Chandler provides the films moral core (if it actually has one) as an FBI agent looking to take Belfort down. Margot Robbie is especially impressive as Belfort’s alternately commanding and befuddled wife.

Does The Wolf of Wall Street lack emotional warmth? Yes—and that’s precisely the point of this movie. Scorsese and DiCaprio are showing us the travesties of an emotionally void, tragically selfish group of people living life through a chemically enhanced haze. These people are terrible—comically terrible—and Scorsese holds nothing back in portraying them as such.

The Wolf of Wall Street shows Scorsese is in no way ready to slow down just yet. It’s not only good … it’s Goodfellas good.

The Wolf of Wall Street is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews