Film

The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)

The disconcerting part of The Irishman’s actually never-ending CGI isn’t the aging and de-aging, it’s star Robert De Niro’s creepy blue eyes. For the first half hour of the (three and a half hour runtime), I was trying to get used to De Niro’s CGI… makeup, but kept having problems with it, which didn’t make sense because Joe Pesci’s didn’t cause any similar consternation. Then I realized it wasn’t the aging or de-aging, it’s the eyes. De Niro’s got these piercing blue eyes and they just don’t look right on him and you can’t look away from them, which is kind of the point.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul… well, with The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro have figured out how to do a character study without ever letting anyone into the character. De Niro’s character, real-life teamster and confessed mob hitman Frank Sheeran, starts the film as an aimless, aging truck driver. He breaks down and happens to meet local mobster Joe Pesci, which pays off after De Niro’s gotten busted for stealing from his company—selling beef on the side to a fantastic Bobby Cannavale, apparently mid-level Philadelphia mob guy. De Niro keeps his mouth shut in court, impressing lawyer Ray Romano (also fantastic, clearly a lot of people wanted their chance to shine in the ultimate Scorsese mob picture), so Romano re-introduces him to Pesci and Pesci starts giving him work. Pesci’s playing older than De Niro (the real-life age difference was seventeen years), but the actors are the same age and so they’re in differing intensities of CGI de-aging. There is an onboarding period with The Irishman, when you’re wondering what it must have looked like on the set, with actors like Romano and Cannavale, seemingly just in some make-up, are acting opposite much older guys De Niro and Pesci, who don’t end up looking much older. Like, once it’s clear De Niro’s supposed to look like a tough Irish guy, explaining his stocky shoulders, it all just fits. All just works. It ceases being a concern and actually ends up being one of the film’s unintended pluses. The Irishman is all about aging. It’s all about the passage of time. Just not for the first act and then there’s this intentional avoiding of it for a lot of the second. It’s a long movie; Scorsese can take his time shifting the film’s tone.

But it’s also a multilevel narrative—De Niro, in a rest home, is telling his story, a very old man. Second level is De Niro telling the story of this time he and Pesci and their wives drove from Philadelphia to Detroit for a wedding. Along the way, sometimes because of visual cues, sometimes not, De Niro thinks about his story getting him to that point. We don’t find out the point of that point until much later in the film, after it’s transitioned from the middle-aged schlub (the main action starts when De Niro’s character is in his thirties but he looks much older) gets involved with the mob and tosses out wife Aleksa Palladino for cocktail waitress Stephanie Kurtzuba, which literally has no narrative impact because De Niro’s already estranged daughters immediately bond with the new wife. It ought not to work, but does because the film’s still establishing its narrative distance from De Niro. It’s not until about halfway through the movie you realize he’s not a protagonist. He’s an unreliable, willing but unenthusiastic narrator—it’s clear real quick these trips down memory lane aren’t pleasing to De Niro, at any level he’s narrating. Because once the film introduces Jimmy Hoffa everything changes. Al Pacino plays Hoffa; doing it like a comedy caricature, then making that real—the yelling finally pays off, thanks to Scorsese. The film’s already been this old mob men buddy picture between De Niro and Pesci moves on to be this De Niro and Pacino buddy flick. They hang out with their families, they have heart to heart talks, De Niro even sleeps in Pacino’s hotel suites so he’s not on the register because De Niro’s not just a teamster, he’s Pacino’s bodyguard.

The family thing is important because The Irishman’s only subplot is De Niro’s daughter, Lucy Gallina as a kid, Anna Paquin as an adult. Gallina figures out pretty quick once her dad goes from being a meat delivery truck driver to a mob hitman. It isn’t until he starts hanging out with Pacino does Gallina start liking anything about her dad’s life. She and Pacino are pals. He’s a dotting grandpa figure who buys her ice cream sundaes. Pacino and the ice cream sundaes becomes a nice detail fast.

The family thing gets important again in the third act, after the disappearance. Because at the end of all three levels of story are the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The third level, the main narrative, tracks De Niro basically babysitting Pacino through historical events, through the Kennedy administration’s persecution—causing a rift between the mob and the unions (the film does need some kind of a historical accuracy section in the credits just so people know how much of the completely whacked out corruption details are true), which eventually leads to Pacino’s feud with dipshit mobster and rival teamster boss Stephen Graham. Graham’s going to be Pacino’s downfall, no matter what Pesci, De Niro, or anyone else do about it. And it’s a long, drawn out, unpleasant downfall.

Because the closest thing The Irishman has to a hero is Pacino’s Hoffa. He’s far from perfect, but he does help people. If the sixties union speeches about the soulless corporations are accurate, well, would you believe things haven’t really improved in sixty years? Oh, right, we already know that.

Of course, he’s not a hero because there aren’t such a thing. There can’t be. If heroes were such a thing, guys like Pesci and De Niro wouldn’t know how to function. It would mean their world views were abjectly broken and, even if Pesci and De Niro aren’t great fans of the world… broken’s a lot.

That thread plays out later on when The Irishman ends on a starkly atheistic note, which makes perfect sense but is a little surprising. At one point, once it’s clear where they’re going, I actually thought, “we’re a long way from Last Temptation, aren’t we.” The Irishman is a perfectly aged film; it’s cumulative for its creators in all the right ways. Having Pacino do a character actor part is just the crowning achievement. For two hours and forty five minutes of the film, it’s very clearly not De Niro’s, which is weird. It seems like it’s De Niro’s. It’s literally got a Little Big Man bookend; The Irishman has got to be this great culmination. Then isn’t.

And it’s not De Niro’s movie for a long time either. It’s Pesci’s or Pacino’s or even Romano’s; De Niro costars in every one of his scenes, even the ones with Gallina and Paquin, which is something since neither of them talk for most of their scenes. De Niro’s the right hand man, even in his own story.

The last thirty minutes changes it all around and is where Irishman sort of ascends the stairs it wasn’t clear anyone was building. Once it’s clear how The Irishman’s going to go… it’s an ultimate trip.

The film goes from being a success to an achievement, with Scorsese’s direction this perfect mix of confident and enthusiastic. He takes his time establishing the filmmaking ground situation—how he, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (and whoever CGIed locations back in time), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer Robbie Robertson (doing some damn fine work, which turns out to be minimalist Morricone) are going to visualize this narrative—then starts branching out, using slow motion for sequences, using a direct exposition dump or two; it’s all very carefully executed and results in every shot being something of a surprise.

There’s a badass 2001 homage. The aforementioned “ultimate trip” is a reference to it but it deserves a callout. It’s really cool. The Irishman still manages to be really cool filmmaking, even after a 130 minutes. Scorsese’s got the juice.

Strong script from Steven Zaillian. He’s got a habit of dragging things out, which Scorsese and the actors are then able to cut lean and nimble, but it’s a questionable habit. Essential expository character development scenes are essential because of Pacino or Pesci or whatever. Not because of Zaillian.

Best performance is either Pesci or Pacino. It’s a toss-up. Pacino for turning a leading man biopic performance into a supporting part or Pesci for getting so much mileage out of a mundane bad guy. But it’s De Niro’s movie in the end. He gets that amazing finale and makes magic. With those creepy CGI blue eyes.

Supporting tier… Romano and Cannavale are the standouts; once Pacino comes in, they all become a lot less important. Sebastian Maniscalco has a great small part. Graham’s a perfect dipshit, which is good, I guess; don’t get typecast (or do). Domenick Lombardozzi’s got a significant supporting part and is unrecognizable to the point you wonder if there’s some CGI involved. He’s excellent in what’s basically the villain part. Harvey Keitel’s got an extended cameo, presumably just to bring a bunch of the gang back together.

Is The Irishman, which Scorsese would’ve preferred to title, I Heard You Paint Houses, but really should just be called Jimmy and Me (or Relating to a Sociopath), a culmination of all Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci’s mob pictures? Yes and no. It doesn’t make an informal trilogy or quartet, because it’s a do-over. It’s Scorsese figuring out what he wants to say about that thing of theirs, made with properly aged thoughtfulness.

The most striking part of the film is the buddy flick aspect, when it’s just old men De Niro and Pacino pretending to younger old men finding an unexpected friendship. It’s really comfortable work from all involved, even though it seems like where they’d have the most problem. Cracking Pacino and De Niro’s relationship is the film’s (first) big success; basically the first and second act can get away with anything thanks to it. And the second big success, the aforementioned achievement, that one’s the third act.

The Irishman is supplanting work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Robbie Robertson; production designer, Bob Shaw; costume designers, Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell; produced by Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Irwin Winkler; released by Netflix.

Starring Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Stephen Graham (Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano), Domenick Lombardozzi (Fat Tony Salerno), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Gary Basaraba (Frank ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons), Marin Ireland (Older Dolores Sheeran), Anna Paquin (Older Peggy Sheeran), Lucy Gallina (Young Peggy Sheeran), Louis Cancelmi (Sally Bugs), Sebastian Maniscalco (Crazy Joe Gallo), Jake Hoffman (Allen Dorfman), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Welker White (Josephine ‘Jo’ Hoffa), Kathrine Narducci (Carrie Bufalino), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), and Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno).


Gelateria (2019, Christian Serritiello and Arthur Patching)

Once it’s clear directors Patching and Serritiello are going to be able to keep Gelateria going, the question becomes how can they possibly end it. The film opens with a lone figure on a rocky beach, yelling into the sea. The water has sound, the yells don’t have sound. Given how the film ends… it’s possible the whole thing’s circular to that first scene, possible it’s not. Doesn’t matter. Probably.

The first half of Gelateria is an absurdist walking tour of art venues, starting with Serritiello going to old friend Jade Willis’s concert. Serritiello’s so good it’s weird to think of him as the director too. He’s what gets Gelateria the initial buy in. He’s just staring at the unseeable woman across from him as he narrates from a journal; Serritiello’s really good at the regarding for the camera bit, he’s taking it seriously, the film’s taking him seriously.

So, I guess it does make sense he’s one of the directors too.

Anyway. Serritiello is going to that Jade Willis concert. The film still hasn’t established how absurd it’s going to get, not until after Willis yells at Serritiello for abandoning him and the dialogue’s not great. Then all of a sudden the film breaks the established narrative distance and mixes it up on the floor and looks up from Serritiello’s position (on the literal floor) and the world is totally different. Willis, who’s quite good, is taunting Willis, egged on by onlookers, and the film begins to establish its boundaries.

Serritiello is going to run along in a bit and look into a barber shop, where there’s a great bit with two customers on the phone. It’s nonsensical but excellent because of the acting, which seems to set Gelateria on steady ground only to immediately go shaky again. Turns out Serritellio’s passing the film off to a third customer, Daniel Brunet. His phone call is about hiring someone to speak Italian during his party on a yacht.

Serritiello, Willis, the other phone actors, they were acting. Brunet is mugging. It’s an immediate problem.

Brunet’s party turns out to be a five person affair in what appears to be a double bed cabin. It’s silly and if Brunet weren’t exaggeratedly odious it might even be funny. Things immediately improve when Simone Spinazze shows up. He’s the Italian hired to speak Italian for the amusement of Brunet and his guests. Once he’s done being made spectacle for terrible WASPs, Spinazze goes to work waitstaff at an art show. That sequence, which is where it becomes clear the film can keep up this momentum, ends in singer Joulia Strauss shooting someone.

She then runs out, gets into a waiting getaway car and speeds off with accomplice (and the other director) Arthur Patching. If it were a different kind of film, there’d be something to look at with Strauss actually having used the art show as a cover to perform a hit.

Anyway.

After Patching stashes Strauss in a safe house with the requisite birds (go with it), he then runs into Carrie Getman, who’s out bird-calling at night, passing the film off to Getman. When then get Getman’s sequence, which is basically her life set to a terrible self-help tape.

Take a breath, only halfway in.

Though actually the second half, which starts with a phenomenal animated sequence is all about how an artist ships her paintings off to a gallery on a remote island and then the gallery never gets in touch so she goes to investigate. There’s bingo involved, a hamburger joint, and avant-garde community theater. It’s all fairly awesome as far as the “plot” goes, with some excellent supporting performances in this section.

Unfortunately, the artist protagonist is played by Patching and Serritiello in drag as a grey-haired British lady. They alternate, which doesn’t matter much as they don’t get any significant dialogue, with Patching probably doing it more? Though the character gets introduced with Serritiello.

I mean, it’s fine for the absurdist comedy thing and all but it might have been funnier if they’d played it, well, straight. Especially given the acting possibilities for the outrageous odyssey through this sleepy little town.

Gelateria looks great, moves great, sounds great (Jack Patching’s score is excellent). Given the directors wrote, edited, photographed, and starred, it’s definitely all thanks to Patching and Serritiello—with major props to Tiago Araújo’s animation; the animated sequence is just what it needs to be to bridge the sections of the film. The film—running just over an hour—is one hell of a sprint. It never slows down, never tires, always kept moving smooth thanks to the directors’ masterful editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, edited, photographed, and produced by Christian Serritiello and Arthur Patching.

Starring Carrie Getman (Eleanor), Tomas Spencer (PC George Hartree), Christian Serritiello (Zbigniew), Jade Willis (Tom Rigby), Simone Spinazze (Giovanni), Arthur Patching (Alfie Dunn), Daniel Brunet (Julius Row), Joulia Strauss (Joulia Strauss), Julie Trappett (Priscilla), and John Keogh (James Flannigan).


Familiar Strangers (2020, Murat Sayginer)

Once the technology gets better, something like Familiar Strangers is going to be disturbing as all hell. Director Sayginer has created a bunch of heads, using deep-fake technology to look like various famous celebrities (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Luke Evans are the most spot on), and the top row moves one way, the bottom row moves the other way and you’re just seeing these disembodied, familiar heads look out.

Some of them look at you and gently smile—everyone’s in a great mood and seeing approximately 250 idyllic looking people smile at you is a nice feeling. Do you forget they’re computer generated? No, because the level of realism isn’t quite there yet. It’s movie stars rendered as happy video game characters. It’s not real. Yet.

Even stranger than the sensation of the “people” looking at you is the sensation of them not. Some of the heads don’t look out at the viewer, they look out at something else. So you’re waiting for the computer-generated Keanu Reeves to look at you and he doesn’t (I actually can’t remember this one for sure; Strangers has a high rewatch value if you’re trying to find you’re favorites; I forgot the second time through to see all the Chrises together). But you feel bad if you don’t get the “eye contact” and the smile.

Perfect musical accompaniment from Bach. I hope Sayginer keeps going with this kind of exploration; heck, I hope he comes back to it once artificial face generation is further along. Not being able to exactly recognize the stars would be better.

Also, a lot of them look just like Mackenzie Astin, which is very odd and seems to say more about Astin (and me for recognizing him in all these CGI faces) than anything Sayginer’s done. Like, I don’t think Mackenzie Astin made the cut for model inclusion here. He’s just apparently got the face Sayginer’s computer wanted to render.

Open the pod bay doors and so on.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Murat Sayginer.


You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).


Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, Michael Dougherty)

I wonder if, much like that one immortal monkey divining Borges’s dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, one could assemble a list of all the action beats in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which are mostly from Aliens and Jurassic Park 1 and 2, and arrange them to figure out the story to this film. Once the film hits the second act, I think it’d be more—I’m forgetting the stuff with Vera Farmiga, which is more out of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond. I’m sure Borges’s immortal monkey could do it, but I guess there is something more to director Dougherty and Zach Shields’s script than just stringing together the action scenes, fitting in the right amount of product placement for the studio (turns out it’s a lot and then a lot times twelve), and making sure there enough possible toys. See, you don’t just get Godzilla merchandise from this one, there’s also the other monsters, plus the stupid giant-sized stealth bomber-thing the good guys fly around in because Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a desperately joyless adaptation of a crappy eighties Godzilla cartoon.

Complete with annoying teen Millie Bobby Brown running around. Brown’s not just a mechanical engineer and accomplice to premeditated omnicide, she also knows how to run a ballpark sound board, which is maybe her most impressive trait.

She’s daughter of mad scientist Vera Farmiga (hashtag feminism), who has betrayed Monarch—the good guys with the giant flying fortress who tell the governments of the world to eat it while they study giant monsters, called Titans because someone wanted a trademark and this Godzilla movie tries as much as it can to forget Japan exists so you know they’re not calling them kaiju—and teamed up with eco-terrorist Charles Dance to release all the giant monsters who will once again rule the Earth.

But Brown’s also daughter of Kyle Chandler, who left Farmiga and Brown because their other kid died in the first Godzilla—unseen and stepped on, confirming it did kill a bunch of civilians but whatever. Chandler lives a simple life with a nineties movies alpha male cottage on a lake where he studies wolves nearby. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Farmiga raising Brown in isolation at the giant monster facilities around the world.

As bad as you think Dougherty and Shields can get with the script, they somehow manage to go even lower. And not just when they’re reusing quotable lines from Alien and The Abyss. It’s all the time. They’ve got nothing good going on here. Nothing.

Obviously things don’t go well with Farmiga’s plan to give the world over to the monsters because it turns out they used frog DNA in the… sadly, no. Nothing quite so good. They really do just hinge it all on Farmiga’s ability to deliver a mad scientist speech and she fails at it utterly. She’s terrible, Brown’s terrible, Chandler’s pretty bad (his part is written as a Die Hard part for Bruce Willis, which would be amusing if Chandler were acting it that way, but he’s not), Ken Watanabe is downright hacky, Sally Hawkins somehow manages not to know how embarrassed she should look during her thankless scenes but someone doesn’t, which just makes it more embarrassing. Not to mention the stunt cameos.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, more than anything else, reminds of the first American attempt at a Godzilla, not because of plotting, but because of the film’s inability to tell an honest scene as well as the stunt casting. Zhang Ziyi gets… one hell of a thankless part, but she’s better than Hawkins for sure. Zhang’s as good as it gets in Monsters. Same goes for—shockingly because the part is so atrociously written—Bradley Whitford. He’s got the scientist slash medical doctor slash airplane pilot slash submarine pilot maybe part. It’s a really poorly written part, but Whitford manages not to be too bad. It’s the function of his part to make the film worse—kind of like how, in addition to being terrible, Thomas Middleditch literally has this recurring thing about making O’Shea Jackson Jr. seem either stupid or dickish. Jackson’s playing one of the soldiers, Middleditch is some useless company man (Monsters basically thinks Paul Reiser is the good guy in Aliens), Jackson’s Black, Middleditch’s White, Jackson’s likable, Middleditch’s a dipshit… it’s bad. And weird. Because Middleditch is apparently going to go on to become Chandler’s offscreen bro. They act like they’ve had a big bonding thing throughout, even though they never have any real scenes together because the script’s terrible and no one has any real scenes.

Unless you count the Joe Morton going and looking for someone scene. Joe Morton and David Straithairn somehow get through this one unscathed. And CCH Pounder. It’s very nice to see her in something… especially since she’s in the first scene so you could just turn it off after she’s done.

Also bad is Aisha Hinds. Not sure how much of it’s her fault but whatever her agent convinced her was going to happen because of this part… the agent was incorrect.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible music from Bear McCreary. There’s not even a lot of it. It’s sparse. But ungodly awful when it comes in. The movie ought to give some kind of warning so you can steel yourself.

Umm, what else. The editing’s not good, but Dougherty’s direction is awful so it’s not like there’s much the editors—all three of them—could do. Lawrence Sher’s photography is similarly not noteworthy. Monsters’s “mise-en-scène” is broke—Dougherty doesn’t know how to direct a single scene in the movie, giant monster or not—so what’s Sher going to do to fix it. What’s anyone going to do.

There are a handful of other things—okay, maybe a dozen but then like five things (plus the dozen)—I’d really like to enumerate but I can’t. If I list these silly, silly things, it might encourage someone to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it would seem like you couldn’t not have some kind of fun with the goofy things on the list. I don’t even want to tease them.

So instead I’ll just mention Doughterty’s “Brodie Bruce” type obsession with kaiju banging—Mothra and Godzilla are (apparently unrequited) soulmates but there’s a good chance Monsters is implying Ghidorah bangs Rodan. It comes up in a lousy attempt at a joke but then at the end the plot perturbs in just the right way for it to seem like a thing, even if it’s just the movie being cheap or expedient or whatever.

Once upon a time, Charles Dance wore a t-shirt with “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” on it, referring to his casting in a film. King of the Monsters—the entire production, the entire cast, the entire crew, everyone, everything, every frame—is wearing a “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” t-shirt.

It’s an astonishingly silly movie and it’s mortifying the filmmakers weren’t able to at least make a fun, astonishingly silly movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dougherty; screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on a story by Max Borenstein, Dougherty, and Shields; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, and Richard Pearson; music by Bear McCreary; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Ziyi Zhang (Dr. Ilene Chen), Thomas Middleditch (Sam Coleman), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Barnes), Anthony Ramos (Staff Sergeant Martinez), Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (First Lieutenant Griffin), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), CCH Pounder (Senator Williams), and Joe Morton (Dr. Houston Brooks).


Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

At the end of Congo, after the heroes have found the lost expedition, the lost city, and the laser-pure diamonds but also run afoul of said lost city’s super-ape protectors and happened to find this place during a volcanic eruption, some of the super-apes jump into the lava flow. It’s a somewhat lengthy sequence, which with a better film might suggest the director was inviting contemplation but Congo’s direction is so bewilderingly bad it’s obviously not; it’s hard not to see the apes, the whole point of Congo, the pay-off to almost ninety minutes of globe-trotting nonsense… it’s hard not them seeing want to vaporize themselves to escape. The film’s an embarrassment for them.

The movie starts with a diamond-seeking expedition to the Congo going wrong. Bruce Campbell and Taylor Nichols, who aren’t in the movie enough, call home to their company, which is a communications company not a diamond company, and where their remote project supervisor is Laura Linney and the big boss is Joe Don Baker, who’s also Campbell’s dad. Oh, and Campbell used to be engaged to Linney. But he wanted to impress his dad too much so Linney dumped him. There’s a good movie in Congo, if someone else had written the script. John Patrick Shanley’s script is really bad. And since Linney’s the lead, though sometimes ostensibly and sometimes de facto, she loses the most potential from the script. She’s got to go to Africa to save Campbell after an unknown something attacks the camp. Thankfully it’s the movies so she’s able to find an expedition already going to Congo, even though it was thrown together immediately following Linney’s dramatic prologue.

Because the script’s dumb. Like, some of Congo’s big problems are just… well, the script’s dumb. Tim Curry’s absurd diamond hunter? Curry reins it in. The movie could handle him camping it up a whole lot more and Curry resists. He’s not good, because it’s a dumb part, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he could be. He gets sympathy. Linney gets sympathy. Male lead Dylan Walsh however… he doesn’t get much sympathy. Because Walsh isn’t even trying. Or, if he’s trying, he’s not trying as hard as uncredited cameo players (Delroy Lindo as an African military commander), much less main supporting player Ernie Hudson, who’s committed to running with it no matter where it takes him. It’s a great showcase for Hudson’s potential in the right role; that potential qualifier is because this role sure ain’t it.

Walsh is a primatologist who’s taught a gorilla to sign and then gotten her a souped up power glove; the glove “speaks” her signs aloud. Shayna Fox does the computer’s voice, the Stan Winston studio does the facial expressions and costume, two different women are in the suit at different times (Lola Noh and Misty Rosas). Is the gorilla, named Amy, successful? I mean, she’s a better character than Walsh, which isn’t saying much, but… the gorilla could be a lot worse. The gorilla could be a whole lot better—the whole hook of Congo, lost super-apes in a lost city of diamonds or whatever, hinges on the gorillas being impressive.

The gorillas are not impressive. The film manages to gin up sympathy for Amy, enough to overlook the technical limitations, but when the super-apes don’t pay off? It’s all over.

Though, really, the writing’s been on the wall for a while. Bad composite shots, the lost city sets being rather small-scale and wanting, the movie itself not being good; Congo’s not got much potential, but it does sort of assure it’s going to pull off the killer gorillas. It does not. Would it have been able to pull them off—same effects crew—if Marshall’s direction weren’t so tepid? Maybe? Possibly. Marshall pushes for as much gore as the PG-13 will let him get away with, but he doesn’t push for any actual suspense, much less horror, much less terror.

Eh photography from Allen Daviau, always at least competent editing from Anne V. Coates, plus a mediocre Jerry Goldsmith score. If it weren’t so blandly bad, Congo might be able to get by on solid technicals… it’s just Marshall. He’s particularly bad at directing this particular film. He’s obviously lost and completely unwilling to stop and ask for directions.

Joe Don Baker’s bad, Grant Heslov’s pointless as Walsh’s sidekick, Mary Ellen Trainor and Stuart Pankin get close-ups during the first act and some lines for absolutely no reason, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s good. You’re never happy to see Tim Curry, but he could be worse. The uncredited Delroy Lindo cameo is excellent Delroy Lindo cameoing. Linney and Walsh are both wanting, in different ways, Walsh much more. Hudson’s at least having a great time and working his butt off. Nice someone could bother in Congo.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Marshall; screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, J. Michael Riva; costume designer, Marilyn Matthews; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Sam Mercer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Laura Linney (Dr. Karen Ross), Dylan Walsh (Dr. Peter Elliot), Ernie Hudson (Captain Monroe Kelly), Tim Curry (Herkermer Homolka), Lola Noh & Misty Rosas & Shayna Fox (Amy the Gorilla), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Kahega), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Ventro), Grant Heslov (Richard), Delroy Lindo (Captain Wanta), Joe Don Baker (R.B. Travis), Taylor Nichols (Jeffrey Weems), John Hawkes (Bob Driscoll), and Bruce Campbell (Charles Travis).


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

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a Margot Robbie vehicle, which is excellent, because Robbie’s great and the filmmaking, particularly on Robbie’s scenes, is outstanding. Retitling it the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn would be the best move; the Birds of Prey are going to be a bonus, with all your favorite side characters teaming up with the potential for a sequel. Or at least a great “team” epilogue scene. But it’s all about Robbie. Robbie and, to a lesser extent, Ewan McGregor, who gets to play a fantastic villain here.

The film opens with an animated recap of Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which—in addition to being kind of cute and establishing the film’s cartoonish nature immediately—means the film doesn’t have to use any actual footage from Robbie’s previous outing, Suicide Squad, much less the cursed image of Jared Leto’s Joker. And it sets up Robbie’s narration; the narration continues after the opening, walking the audience through the plot, albeit with less exposition than in the opening titles sequence. Robbie’s contemporaneous narration usually establishes one of the supporting players’ backstories in relation to the crime story and gives Fantabulous a noir feel. Director Yan shoots it like one too, with the supporting cast all assuming the showy character actor parts of old without being character actors. Instead, Yan and Prey just waits for the character to resonate enough through presence, then expands them. The film’s got a phenomenal sense of timing, both for the character arcs and the action. The film’s a crime story about a tween pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who picks the wrong pocket and gets into a bunch of trouble. She gets some badass defenders who try to get her out of that trouble while also inspiring her to do something better with her life.

Though not exactly. Because Birds of Prey is very much about the bullshit women have to tolerate just to survive. Robbie’s been a cannibal madman’s concubine, if you want to go with comic book Joker, or… shudder… Jared Leto’s, if you want to go with movie Joker. Cop Rosie Perez has watched the men she works with take credit for her work for her entire career. Club singer turned crime boss driver Jurnee Smollett-Bell is on survival mode, though Smollett-Bell’s got the thinnest backstory; the film’s not fair to most of its supporting cast; Birds gives them enough to shine but only just. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mafia orphan turned “cross bow killer,” who assassinates the mobsters who killed her family so long ago. Winstead turns out being great, but it takes a while. She’s kind of comic relief cameoing leading up to it. It’s unfair because Smollett-Bell’s introduction, a performance of It’s a Man’s World, is one of the film’s best sequences.

Fantabulous has a lot of sequences on that list, however. The entire first act and most of the second are these expertly executed and edited adventures for Robbie, with frequent check-ins on villain McGregor and cop Perez. No one gets to do anything on their own except Robbie, McGregor, and Perez in Birds. Smollett-Bell never runs her own scene and, despite being a lone avenger, Winstead doesn’t get to either. Ditto Basco. It’s Robbie’s movie, with some great stuff for McGregor and Perez—once it’s clear McGregor and Perez are actually going to be able to give excellent performances, Birds of Prey’s gradually solidifying ground immediately turns concrete. McGregor, Yan, and screenwriter Christina Hodson get a truly great villain going here. The strangest part of Fantabulous, between McGregor’s New Wave gangster antics and Robbie doing crime and fighting thugs in the streets of Gotham, is how much it feels like a realization of the DC Batman movies going back to the beginning. Well, not Adam West, but Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Birds of Prey’s got an actual good sense of humor about itself. It lets itself have fun and stretch to get to certain jokes. The truly terrifying moments in the film make up for it. It’s not just McGregor’s arrogant, privileged sadism, it’s him having even more dangerous sidekick Chris Messina. Because Messina knowingly eggs McGregor on. And they come into the movie cutting people’s faces off so there’s the imagination is rightly spinning.

Throw in Yan, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer K.K. Barrett, and costumer designer Erin Benach’s “reality,” which sort of toughens up a cop comedy to the point where you can have Robbie and Winstead’s costumed antics and not have it break character. Yan and Libatique open with a great scene of urban destruction; it’s very realistically rendered. As the film introduces more and more outlandish elements, the visual tone stays constant. It’s not until the end Birds breaks out the obviously CGI landscapes, at which point Yan and company have earned the leeway. It’s a bit of a cartoon anyway, right?

The third act’s not great. Birds just doesn’t have an ending. Instead of just stopping, the film wraps everything it can together and hopes the cast can pull it off. The cast and some excellent fight choreography, which is geared for eventual laughs not ouches, succeed.

But the point of the movie isn’t the fight, the missing diamond, the girl power… it’s Robbie. And for the great showcase Fantabulous gives Robbie, it doesn’t give her enough. The part’s not there. Because to put the part there… you couldn’t have the entertaining action comedy. Or at least the jokes wouldn’t land in the same way. So it’s not a good ending but it’s a reluctant fine. It does work. It just doesn’t excel and when you’ve spent ninety minutes watching everything excel, something not excelling is a smash on the breaks.

So me being upset about Robbie not getting a better character study aside, Fantabulous is a thorough success. Yan, Robbie, and McGregor are the major standouts—though Yan’s crew all deserves major acknowledgement, especially the costume and production designs, the photography, the editing. I have no memory of Daniel Pemberton’s score, but the soundtrack’s great and, whatever Pemberton does works.

Oh. And the now infamous sandwich scene. It’s remarkable. The film often is.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cathy Yan; screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on the DC Comics characters created by Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino, Paul Levitz, Joe Staton, Joey Cavalieri, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Mitch Brian, Kelley Puckett, and Damion Scott; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, K.K. Barrett; costume designer, Erin Benach; produced by Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Ewan McGregor (Roman Sionis), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Dinah Lance), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Helena Bertinelli), Ali Wong (Ellen Yee), and Steven Williams (Captain Erickson).


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