Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

Director: Cathy Yan

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

109 mins. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material.

 

It feels like the DCEU has found its footing under the new leadership. After Justice League, the DCEU was handed off to others, and both Aquaman and Shazam! achieved generally positive reviews, so where does Birds of Prey land in all this? Did it continue that hot streak? Well, yes and no, but mostly no.

The Joker has dumped Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, Peter Rabbit), and now the queen of mayhem is alone on the streets of Gotham and everyone wants her dead. It seems like all of Gotham has a vendetta against Quinn, including mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge!, Doctor Sleep), who tasks her with stealing a diamond, but this is all an attempt to take her out. Harley is in over her head, and in order to stop Sionis, she needs help from others who have been wronged by him.

Cinematic universes have changed the way these stories are told. Relationships and characters evolve across multiple films, but this is a problem for Birds of Prey. It seemingly assumes that we, as audience members, understand the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn. Hell, the inciting incident of the film is the destruction of that relationship. The issue with that assumption is that we didn’t get a good look at the central relationship in Suicide Squad; there simply wasn’t enough time dedicated to the relationship or the Joker in general to make the breakup have any impact. Since Jared Leto doesn’t appear in Birds of Prey, we again get nothing to go on that made me really connect with what Harley is going through in the film.

Thankfully, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role of Quinn, and yet again, she is such a dynamic presence onscreen that makes up for the lack of empathy and stakes to her central character journey. This is great because, for a film that sold itself as being a Birds of Prey film with a tiny hint of Harley Quinn, this is really a Harley Quinn film with a dash of Birds of Prey. Given that so much screen time is dedicated to Quinn, it’s great to know that Robbie continues to captivate as the Maid of Mischief.

Even Margot Robbie’s tremendous work as Quinn cannot save a very muddled and convoluted plot. I think the idea was to make Birds of Prey into DC’s version of Deadpool, so the film is edited to give it a loose narrative structure that hops around, but it lost me several times. I was never confused, but it lost my interest every time it left the main narrative.

Birds of Prey was very fun, but it struggled to consistently maintain my interest throughout its run time. I enjoyed several chunks of the film, and overall I really enjoyed the film, but altogether, this film is an absolute mess. It’s saved by an engaging Robbie performance and the awesome turn from Ewan McGregor, and I still believe that the film is worth watching for fans of the Harley Quinn character and the DCEU, but it’s a bug jumbled mess of a movie.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, click here.

For my review of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, click here.

For my review of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, click here.

For my review of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, click here.

For my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, click here.

For my review of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, click here.

Bombshell (2019)

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney

Screenplay: Charles Randolph

109 mins. Rated R for sexual material and language throughout.

 

Bombshell is a movie I was very excited to see as soon as I caught the trailer. First of all, I didn’t realize it was Charlize Theron (Monster, Atomic Blonde) under all that makeup, and that shocked and excited me. Also, I was a big fan of Vice, which follows people I don’t much like doing bad things, and I felt like Bombshell had a lot in common with Vice tonally, so that made me all the more excited.

It’s 2016, and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Theron) has made an enemy of Donald Trump by asking him about his comments toward women. Meanwhile, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!, TV’s Big Little Lies) has been removed from her place on Fox & Friends, and she is contemplating a lawsuit. At the same time, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad, Peter Rabbit) has just been hired and she wants to get to the top. When she reaches out to the Head of Fox News, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, Late Night, TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun), she is put into an inappropriate situation by Ailes. Soon after, Gretchen begins a firestorm when she comes forward with sexual harassment claims against Ailes, and Fox News begins to implode in the process.

This movie was painful to watch, and that’s kind of the point. The film’s trailers presented a very chic and stylized film, and while the style is definitely there, the story made me really uncomfortable, and in that way, I really found it to be an effective drama. It’s hard to really explain the techniques, but I think mostly it came from the tremendous acting work across the board and the sharp writing from Charles Randolph (The Big Short, Exposed). Director Jay Roach (Trumbo, All the Way) also elected to focus his camerawork on the performances and the story, which I really respect. The film’s overall effect on me was powerful.

Our three female leads are all incredible, each one owning their screen time quite well. The fact that Margot Robbie is able to hold her own against Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman is astounding considering the latter two actresses have been around for awhile and are playing real-life humans, whereas Robbie is an amalgam of other people. Their interactions are fiery and full of so much humanity. It’s astoundingly-performed.

John Lithgow is a disturbing presence as Roger Ailes. I never would have placed him in the role, but he is incredibly slimy and full of so much villainy. His makeup as well as that for Theron and Kidman is incredible, and their strong performances work all the better for the makeup. Having seen recent films like The Grudge, I can say that a poor makeup prosthetic can ruin a good performance and a good one can elevate it.

I also have to throw some love to Connie Britton (American Ultra, TV’s Dirty John) because she won’t get the attention she deserves for her work as Beth Ailes, Roger’s adoring wife. She doesn’t have a lot of scenes in the film, but with that time, she disappears in this role and showcases a woman who believes with all her heart that her husband couldn’t have done anything wrong (that, or she willing ignores it), and it’s shocking how long she is able to keep up with the scandal. In a lot of ways, we like to believe that our loved ones could never do anything to hurt us, and Britton exemplifies that.

Outside of the writing and acting work, there’s nothing too flashy in the film other than the strong production design, which recreates an environment like Fox News, and I think it creates a sense of realism in the film. Director Jay Roach also capably creates connections with people that I don’t really know and makes them realistic.

Bombshell is a strong performance-laden film with some shockingly-good acting work from pretty much the entire team, and its screenplay is incredibly well-constructed to connect with its audience on a cerebral level. It’s not an easy viewing experience but it is well worth it. Outside of those elements, there isn’t a lot of notable wins here, but I highly recommend the film to anyone, whether or not you like the people being portrayed.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Jay Roach’s All the Way, click here.

[Early Review] The Kitchen (2019)

Director: Andrea Berloff

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian D’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, Bill Camp

Screenplay: Andrea Berloff

102 mins. Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content.

 

Andrea Berloff has a pretty solid resume for her writing, but The Kitchen is her directorial debut. The film, a 1970s-set Hell’s Kitchen gangster picture, is a perfect showcase for her talents.

When three New York gangsters are sent to prison in the 1970s, their wives must find a way to make ends meet. They’ve all kept relatively out of the family business, and when the family promises to help them financially, they still can’t afford to pay their bills. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip, Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss, The One I Love, TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) decide to take matters into their own hands and actually provide protection to all the businesses who pay money to the crime family, but their plan creates an internal struggle within the family as the balance of power drastically shifts in Hell’s Kitchen.

I want to start by stating that I’ve not read the comic-book miniseries that the film is based on. I will say that, for a first feature, Berloff jumps a lot of hurdles that could have really been problems in this film. She has three strong actresses leading the film, and each one has a unique take on their situation. Kathy has a loving husband and just wants to survive until she begins to like the power. Ruby has never been loved by mother-in-law and family head Helen (Margo Martindale, August: Osage County, Instant Family) because of her skin color and sees this as an out. Claire has been beaten on a daily basis by her husband and decides that she isn’t going to be a victim when the men all go to jail. Claire develops a bond with the unstable but doting Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Peter Rabbit).

The film has some nice cinematography and the editing keeps everything moving pretty nicely until the final act, which I felt was more stretched out than it needed to be. One of the reasons it’s all the more noticeable is that some of the most surprising story beats in the final 30 minutes are brushed by while some of the more expected plot points are drug out far more than they needed to be.

The only other flaw in the film for me is that certain events play out a little too easily for our main characters. I kept recalling throughout the film that these three wives were never really involved in the family business and yet they took to it so easily that they were able to hold their own against more seasoned gangsters with ease. I would have liked more struggle for them as they make mistakes and learn from them early on. That’s the story that would’ve engaged me more.

The Kitchen is a stylistic pulpy gangster film that sees a pretty standard “rise to power” tale from the point-of-view of characters that don’t normally get to be a part of that type of story. Andrea Berloff keeps a nice mix of tension and comedic relief that kept me guessing, even if the story beats occasionally drifted to tropes. The dialogue is snappy and the performances, especially from McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss, are the true strengths here. It’s an imperfect movie, but it’s one I would gladly see again.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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