Movie Review ~ The Invisible Man (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 2010’s, Universal Studios saw the writing on the wall.  They didn’t have any true franchise properties left and even the recently resurrected Jurassic World would only take them so far.  With Marvel doing beyond spectacular business with The Avengers and all their spin-offs and after Warner Brothers got into the groove of their DC world with Wonder Woman, the once titan Universal was suddenly taking at least the bronze in the box office Olympics.  Then, some clever person within the company hit on something…the studio had a literal haunted house full of characters that had filled their coffers almost a hundred years earlier and had largely laid dormant for the last half century.  Why not resurrect Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein? Then they’d give them a modern twist to create what was to be known as the Dark Universe.

To me, this sounded like a heck of a lot of fun.  With The Mummy in production with Tom Cruise, the kernel of an idea started to grow into something interesting with the news that Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and other A-listers like Johnny Depp would be coming on board for various projects over the next several years.  Announcing not just the movies but also actual release dates along with a much passed around photo of these stars giving their best brooding monster face, the studio put all of their precious eggs in one mummified basket and the result…was a complete disaster.  Released in 2017, The Mummy had its moments but Cruise was too old for his role and the titular character (recast as a female and that’s where the creativity stopped) was largely absent.  While not a complete bomb, the box office returns were paltry enough to completely throw the Dark Universe off its axis, resulting in a humiliating about face for Universal, which eventually cancelled all of its gothically grandiose plans.  The Dark Universe was dead.

It was surprising, then, to see a new version of The Invisible Man quietly make its way onto the schedule for an early 2020 release.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), this isn’t a straight-up remake of the classic film from 1897 based on the novel by H.G. Wells but an original story that has more in common with the 1991 Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy.  What made The Mummy such a downer was how much it was clear it was trying to be this jumping off point for something bigger.  The Invisible Man doesn’t come with those extra trappings (at least not that I could immediately observe) so it has a freedom to be its own monster instead of being the first step in a full-blown creature crawl.

The first thirty minutes of Whannell’s movie is focused on establishing Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, Us), a woman putting her life back together after escaping (literally) her violent and controlling significant other, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven).  Fleeing from his impressively secure beachfront home in the middle of the night, she hides out with her sister’s boyfriend James (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) in the home he shares with his daughter (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time).  Fearing Adrian will find her and even though James is a police officer that isn’t rattled easily, Cecilia stays indoors and out of sight…until her sister (Harriet Dyer) arrives with the news that Adrian has taken his own life.  Now…Cecilia is truly free.

Adrian’s death brings Cecilia some emotional relief and a financial windfall after she’s named the beneficiary of his fortune at a meeting with his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales).  The calm is short lived, though, because soon she starts to get the strange feeling she’s being watched by an unseen presence.  Items start to disappear and events occur that can’t be easily explained unless…maybe Adrian isn’t really dead.  Perhaps his work in optics has given him a way to crack the code on invisibility and allowed him to stalk Cecelia, her family, and her friends.  Could that invisibility suit he was working on in his lab actually work to let him slip in and out of Cecilia’s new life unnoticed and enact psychological torture on her? Then again…with her already fragile mental state it could be that Cecelia is just imagining it all and she’s the one behind the violence that begins to occur?

At 124 minutes, Whannell definitely gives audiences a full movie experience with a beginning, middle, and an end and I appreciated the whole thing felt like such a complete package.  It absolutely has an old-school ‘90s vibe to it and that isn’t a bad thing in my book, though it may come off a little hokey for movie-goers used to seeing their foes instead of just imagining them.  Blessedly going light on the kind of visual effects that could have bogged things down, Whannell opts for practical methods to elicit good scares along the way.  I think there are a few too many one-person fights with an invisible enemy but they are staged with flair that keep you alert and engaged.  The final 40 minutes are a wild ride, yet Whannell makes a bold choice to end the movie on a quieter (but still effective) note than you may be used to.

Though she’s amassed a large fan following from her days on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve never totally warmed to Moss as an actress.  Her addled lady on the edge only goes so far with me and after 2019’s Her Smell was so widely embraced I sort of just couldn’t take it anymore. (I can’t believe how many people liked that movie – it’s just…blah…terrible and you can hate me all you want for saying it).  Here, though, all the ticks and quirks that Moss uses as calling cards work in her favor and she positively makes this movie soar on a different level than a conventional horror film.  She has the relatable “Anytown, U.S.A.” look to her so that when she turns around and surveys an empty room, unable to place why she’s uneasy but knowing something is wrong, you instantly understand the rising fear.  Her performance is so key that while the rest of the supporting cast is strong (Hodge, in particular, is becoming a value-add to anything he shows up in), they tend to fade into the background when sharing the screen with her.

If this is where Universal is going creatively with their intellectual property than I say more power to them because it’s an intriguing entry point into pulling from the past to create something new.  In November it was announced that Elizabeth Banks would direct and star in The Invisible Woman which thankfully isn’t related to this movie and they also have plays for a Renfield movie, taking a secondary character from Dracula off the sidelines and positing them at the forefront.  All interesting choices that I’m excited to see play out.  Right here, right now though…The Invisible Man is well worth getting a glimpse of.

The Silver Bullet ~ Candyman (2020)

Synopsis: Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Release Date:  June 12, 2020

Thoughts: As I recalled in my 31 Days to Scare review, 1992’s Candyman remains one of the rare movies that still manages to frighten me to this day.  It scared me terribly when I first saw it and I get a little rush of sweat in my brow when I know I’m going to be seeing it again.  It’s just that well-crafted of a horror film.  So I was more than a little curious when a remake was announced, thinking it was just another in the long-line of ill-conceived reboots that no one asked for.  It’s when Oscar-winning screenwriter and surging director Jordan Peele (Us) came on board to co-write the script and director Nia DaCosta signed on to direct that I really got interested and if this first trailer is any indication, this 2020 Candyman is going to pack that same scary sting as the original.  With an enviable cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and even original cast member Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) returning as what looks to be the same character this one is something to look forward to.  Looking over the cast on IMDb reveals Peele is either making a sequel ala the recent Halloween or remaking the original with a twist…either way I’m in for some sweet screams.

Movie Review ~ The Lodge

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote winter cabin. Isolated and alone, strange and frightening events threaten to summon psychological demons from her strict religious childhood.

Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Living in the Midwest, we take the cold and the snow very seriously.  When the temps drop and the white stuff piles up, there’s nothing more we love doing that hunkering down indoors and waiting for summer to arrive, all the while hoping the cabin fever keeps its distance.  So you’d understand why, for me, when a movie like The Lodge comes around it doesn’t spark the same kind of instant fear that someone in, say, Malibu might have if they could think of nothing so horrible as to be stuck in a wintery retreat cut off from the outside world with malevolent forces at work.  That being said, I’m always up for a spooky little horror yarn from an independent distributor and this one was arriving with a sharp snare drum of good buzz so I made sure to bundle up and see it at a recent screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse.

Usually, you can take the pull quotes from the marketing materials with a large grain of thick kosher salt because the studio is looking for the lines from advance reviews that will catch the greatest amount of attention.  Why call a movie “scary” when you can call it “the scariest movie I’ve seen in ages!”?  Thankfully, those smart folks at Neon aren’t out to overshoot things and have found a good one to describe this new horror film from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz: “Scary as Hell” and for once they aren’t too far away from spot-on.  This is a taut, largely unpredictable film that refuses to be put into a box early on and manages to maintain its mood and suspense far longer than it ought to.

Now, it’s going to be harder than usual to discuss this without giving away some semblance of spoilers because the set-up has some spoiler-ish elements but know that I’m weighing what I’m revealing against your overall experience.  Read on if you will – or if you truly don’t want to know anything that stop right now and come back and read this as you’re warming up after the movie.

For Aidan (Jaeden Martell, Midnight Special) and Mia (Lia McHugh, Hot Summer Nights) the holidays aren’t going to be the same as they were last year.  Their parents have split up and while their emotional fragile mom Laura (Alicia Silverstone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) works out her own issues they are spending more time with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) and his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road).  As is the case with many children of divorced parents, the teens aren’t taking too well to dad’s new squeeze and it doesn’t make things better when he invites her along to their family cabin weekend for the Christmas holiday.

On the surface, Grace seems like she should be a good fit with the family.  Though maybe slightly too young to be both in a new relationship with Richard and a possible future stepmother, she bares a striking resemblance to Laura and that only adds fuel to the fire of Aidan and Mia’s dislike for her.  When Richard leaves for a planned weekend back in the cities for work, he leaves Grace alone with the children and that’s when things start to get…weird.  You see, Grace was the only surviving member of a mysterious doomsday cult and her sanity begins to teeter on the edge when unexplained things start to occur.  Is it the children playing a practical joke, have shadowy figures from her past come back to continue their work, or is Grace simply losing her mind and imagining it all?

There was a Q&A after the movie with the directors and they seemed to revel in the fact that this movie is as twisted as it is.  Going off of their previous film, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, I definitely see why they would have been drawn to this as their follow-up because there are similar themes of children acting as possible manipulators on fragile adults and how their games can turn deadly.  What’s so intriguing about The Lodge is the way it builds its central mystery with such care that the solution could have been any number of outcomes.  I honestly had it in my mind it was going in one direction and had the scenes/dialogue to back-it up…only to have the directors pull the rug out from under me with another twist I didn’t see coming.

All the twists in the world wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans if they didn’t have a cast that was able to convince you to go in the wrong direction over and over again.  Martell and McHugh have tricky, tricky roles and for reasons that I can’t divulge will only say that what they are asked to do is pretty remarkable right up until the credits run.  I’m so glad to see Silverstone continue to take on challenging roles that couldn’t be further away from her Clueless days and while Armitage likely has the least interesting part of all, he manages to keep you wondering what he’s up to when he vanishes for long stretches of time. The film belongs to Keough, though, and her gradual descent into a calculated madness is well thought out and benefits from Fiala and Franz shooting the film in chronological order.  That allows Keough to chart her breakdown convincingly; giving her room to find the little ways her resolve begins to crack along the way.

For most of these types of movies, once the Big Twist has been revealed the rest of the run time gets a little tiresome as audience members just wait for all the edges to be rounded off.  In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz make good use of what comes after to instill even more disturbing outcomes, serving up real time consequences that are tough to watch.  You can tell Fiala and Franz have affinity for their characters in the way they see them through to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they let them off easily.  This one earns its stripes as a solid horror film but also benefits from strong film making at its core.

Movie Review ~ The Night Clerk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray

Director: Michael Cristofer

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit.  At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest.  I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right?  Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel.  Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.

I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top.  I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge.  Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.

Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways.  Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think.  Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears.  While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.

Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors.  He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide.  Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others.  Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?

Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives.  As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make.  The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons.  Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch.  It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés.  He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.

Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once.  I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it.  Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully.  Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.

Movie Review ~ The Assistant


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive as she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.

Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, Purva Bedi

Director: Kitty Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: A film like The Assistant was bound to arrive eventually.  Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light the unspoken predatory behavior beyond Hollywood’s closed doors there have been countless news articles, think pieces, and non-fiction works that have gone deep into how things got as bad as they did.  Yet for as many of these real-life dealings in sensational exposés there was going to come a time when a fictionalized account would make it way to screens and I was bracing for a squirm-inducing bit of discomfort.  The trailer for The Assistant is cut to look like a razor sharp thriller and even the log-line promises “a searing look” at a day in the life of our titular character.

So…why isn’t The Assistant more affecting or more substantive?  Writer/director Kitty Green certainly has decent designs on her compact story told over the course of one seemingly ordinary day but whatever she’s trying to say about the current state of the Time’s Up or #MeToo movement gets lost in muddled delivery.  It’s never clear if this is an indictment on the industry at large or intended to cast a withering look on those that see troubling things happen but refuse to say anything.  Instead of being a modest yet compelling voice that adds to the proposed change the industry needs, The Assistant winds up becoming a frustrating part of the problem with its resolute adherence to staid storytelling.

Jane (Julia Garner, Grandma) works for a high-profile movie exec at an unnamed studio and seems to have gotten used to her surroundings.  She arrives before dawn and sets up for the day; organizing schedules, preparing coffee, and steeling herself for her boisterous male peers that routinely slough off the more mundane tasks to her plate.  We never see the boss, only hearing his muffled bark on the phone or through walls when he’s berating his staff but his presence hangs over the office like a dark cloud.  Aside from the occasional celebratory (Patrick Wilson pops in playing himself and seeing that his wife Dagmara Domińczyk has a smaller role you wonder if they aren’t friends of the production), a parade of women flow through the doors during business hours, with no one batting an eye if some of the more exotic beauties leave slightly disheveled, unable to make eye contact on their way out.

When a pretty but clearly unqualified girl fresh off the turnip truck shows up saying she’s been hired by the boss as a new assistant to work alongside Jane, Jane’s reaction and next steps are startling for two reasons.  The first is that she recognizes just how little importance is placed on the work she’s currently doing and it’s somehow only dawning on her now that hard work in the industry only gets you so far.  The real lesson, and best sequence of the movie, is a scene between Jane and an HR leader (Matthew Macfadyen, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) who she has turned to with her concerns.  Garner and Macfadyen both play the dynamics of this conversation well and it takes you in directions you may not initially guess.  Green’s script may not give Garner the kind of speech you want her to have but there’s something telling in what’s not being said between the two characters.

If only the rest of The Assistant had been as finely tuned as this one scene, it may have amounted to more than a small distraction that further illustrates that men in power routinely abuse their position.  I wish Green had gone further in the forum she was given and had been able to create some more depth in the other secondary characters that fill out the rest of the cast.  Aside from Garner and Macfadyen, everyone else seems to be barely etched and, consequently, played without much grounding.  There’s something to the structure Green has created but it’s in the building of the finished product where things just fall flat.

Movie Review ~ Waiting for Anya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: During the harrows of WWII, Jo, a young shepherd along with the help of the Widow Horcada, helps to smuggle Jewish children across the border from southern France into Spain.

Stars: Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Frederick Schmidt, Thomas Kretschmann, Noah Schnapp, Gilles Marini, Elsa Zylberstein, Nicholas Rowe, Tómas Lemarquis, Sadie Frost

Director: Ben Cookson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As a child, I remember reading countless numbers of books assigned by teachers and picked up randomly from the library about children living in the Alps (Swiss, French, etc.) doing brave things.  They climbed mountains, they survived in the wilderness, they went toe-to-toe with grumpy grandfathers, and they often stood up to authority in the face of great danger.  As I grew older, I began to see that a number of these novels were really about life during the second World War with Nazis being cast as the Big Bad that our child heroes and heroines were pitted against.  To me, it was just kids triumphing over mean adults…

Somehow in the midst of my massive amount of reading I missed Michael Morpurgo 1990 book Waiting for Anya.  Looking at its hand painted cover and reading it’s rousing description it seems like something that was right up my alley and a title I would have checked out promptly.  Though he has become more well known for his 1982 novel War Horse (which inspired the stage show that led to the Steven Spielberg movie), this is another of his works that is often read in schools and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s a minor history lesson wrapped in a relatively safe story; it stays squarely in its lane and prefers not to veer off course even though its talented cast is surely up for the challenge.

A prologue scroll acclimates us to the fragile time of war we are entering at the start of the picture.  Jews are being loaded onto trains to an unknown destination and a man named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt, Angel Has Fallen) is attempting to avoid boarding with his young daughter, Anya.  Flash forward to the village of Lescun where we meet Jo, (Noah Schnapp, The Peanuts Movie) a shepherd that has a chance encounter with a more grizzled Benjamin while tending to his flock.  Following Benjamin back to his lodging with the Widow Horcada (Anjelica Huston, The Witches) Jo soon comes to realize that her farm is being used to transport young Jews into the safety of Spain.  Trusting Jo with this knowledge, Horcada and Benjamin bring the boy into their fold which increases the danger not just for the three of them but for Jo’s family and the rest of their tiny village.

There’s an unfortunate sameness that settles over the film early on and it never can truly shake it.  Perhaps it’s just that Morpurgo’s story isn’t that original and, while an important piece of history, has been told before with a bit more conviction through better means.  This adaptation from Toby Torlesse and director Ben Cookson feels like a, sorry to say it, paint-by-numbers approach to a Nazi WWII drama with all of the standard complications and tensions throughout.  There’s the gruff father (Gilles Marini) that doesn’t understand why his son is affiliated with a fringe-dweller like Benjamin, the conflicted Nazi general (Thomas Kretschmann, Avengers: Age of Ultron) who the screenplay tries to make more three dimensional, and a smarmy Nazi lieutenant (Tómas Lemarquis, X-Men: Apocalypse) with eyes that get bigger the stronger his German accent gets.  That being said, Huston and Jean Reno (Alex Cross) as Jo’s grandfather inject their characters with a bit of oomph, even if all the actors involved tend to come off as overly earnest.

Look, I’m never going to begrudge a movie (or book) like Waiting for Anya to exist.  If it opens the door for a dialogue between parents/teachers and their children/students into this period of history than I say more power to them.  From a production standpoint, the film is obviously operating on a smaller budget but it has some lovely picturesque vistas so it’s mostly a well-made affair.  It’s when it falls prey to the run-of-the-mill machinations of its genre that the movie becomes markedly less effective.  Recommended on the strength of the performances.

Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

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

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Dcera (Daughter) (Directed by Daria Kashcheeva)
Synopsis: In a hospital room, the Daughter recalls a difficult childhood moment when as a little girl she tried to share her experience with an injured bird with her Father.
Review: Oh boy, you know things are going to be a bit rough when the first shot of an animated film is a hospital room with a daughter keeping vigil at her father’s side.  By this point in my Oscar journey I’ve come to expect these animated shorts to be more than the traditional Mickey, Donald, or Chip ‘n Dale comic hi-jinks full of laughs but it’s always a cold shot of air when they are bleak from the jump.  While Dcera (Daughter) has some moments of beauty, it’s largely a somber tale of a daughter recounting her life being raised by her single father and how they failed to connect until it is too late.  The animation is in line with this messy, complicated relationship and I appreciated that director Daria Kashcheeva picked a tone and stuck with it through to the end.  All of us can remember a time when we missed the chance to find greater meaning in a moment with a parent or parental figure and Kashcheeva doesn’t let us forget how much that stings looking back.

Hair Love
(Directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., & Bruce W. Smith)
Synopsis: An African-American father learns to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Review: There’s always one entry each year that I call the “creeper”.  Not because it’s got questionable social boundaries but because it has a way of lying in wait, ready to strike at your emotions when your defenses are at their most vulnerable.  Hair Love is crowned Creeper of the Year thanks to a late in the game shift that truly got me and got me good.  Based on director (and former NFL player) Matthew Cherry’s book of the same name, this follows an important morning when Zuri is trying to get her hair just right.  Her father, Stephen, tries to help but doesn’t have the right touch so the two turn to a familiar face for assistance.  At first, you may think you know where this is headed and even when it shifts gears it may feel like you’ve been led into some manipulative territory…but keep watching through the credits because the story keeps going on.  Full of joy and heart…exactly the kind of authentic spirited crowd-pleaser this category often lacks.

Kitbull
(Directed by Rosana Sullivan)
Synopsis: A fiercely independent stray kitten and a chained-up pit bull experience friendship for the first time.
Review: For a long time, those cute PIXAR shorts that played before their full-length features dominated in this category and now that production on these has slowed a bit there is space for what they are calling SparkShorts.  According to their website, these are “designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows.” and while some can read that as “cheaper to produce” I prefer to look at it more like the indie unit of PIXAR animation.  It’s sort of like what Fox Searchlight was to 20th Century Fox (which, like PIXAR is owned by Disney) so while you likely won’t see these SparkShorts in front of Pixar’s upcoming Onward, you would see them pop up regularly on Disney+.  That’s how we wound up with Kitbull, a dark tale that isn’t quite kid friendly but still has a message of friendship that could benefit the more mature youth in your group.  If I tell you the film is about the strained relationship between a stray cat and a junkyard mutt used in dog fighting, would that instantly make you think it’s a feel-good film?  Well, miraculously it is and while I would absolutely not suggest this one to little tykes, parents that have a good feel for the sensitives of their children (and themselves) would likely be in for a good conversation after watching this one as a family.

Mémorable (Memorable)
(Directed by Bruno Collet)
Synopsis: Painter Louis and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism. They are “destructuring,” sometimes disintegrating.
Review: Reminding me more than just a little of last year’s somber Late Afternoon, this French offering is an insightful look into the gradual deterioration of a man suffering from a neurological disorder that robs him of his memory.  I don’t want to call it Alzheimer’s or dementia because the film doesn’t articulate it but it’s on that level, illustrated with startlingly clear examples as a painter slowly sees the world in less defined states.  While these types of downhill spirals can be a bit of a bummer to sit through, knowing the eventual outcome is never going to be great, there’s something special in this one that allows it to blossom rather than wilt.  I think it’s largely due to director Bruno Collet’s way of putting the disease into a tangible visual seen through the eyes of the painter.  At first we don’t quite notice the small shifts in perspective but by the time it’s evident what’s happening it’s too far gone to do anything to address it properly.  It’s a sad story but beautifully told.

Sister
(Directed by Siqi Song)
Synopsis: A man remembers his childhood and growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?
Review: Arguably the entry that I had the most desire to want to reach out and touch, Siqi Song’s stop-motion felt animation requires some attention to narrative detail at the outset for audiences to truly grasp the final twist Song cleverly tucks away until the perfect moment.  As our narrator retraces his childhood in China with his younger sister by recounting some key adventures and trouble they found themselves in being highlighted, Song makes it less episodic than it can seem on the surface.  It may be signs of some storytelling problems that the finale is a bit confusing, though. While I understood what Song was going for in flipping our preconceived notions on their head, if you have to pause an eight minute film to remember key details you may have missed then maybe they weren’t delivered as clearly as they could have been to begin with.  Even so, this one wasn’t the most polished in terms of animation but for providing something different with an air of mystery around it, it had its share of stand-out elements.

Final Thoughts
: Again, not the strongest years for nominees in this category but unlike in previous ceremonies there are no outright head scratchers that are showing up, either.  Bolstered by three other highly regarded shorts (the long but oddly compelling Henrietta Bulkowski, the gorgeously realized The Bird and the Whale, and the fun Max Fleischer-esque comedy Hors Piste) that didn’t get nominated but were liked enough for Shorts TV to include them in the presentation, this is a fine group of nominees but nothing so drop your knickers amazing that there’s a definite winner in the bunch.  That being said, I found Hair Love to be exactly the kind of pro-everything kind of experience we need a heck of a lot more of nowadays and Mémorable to have the most beautiful realization of a thought/concept.  Never underestimate the power of PIXAR, though, and the rag-tag team of PIXAR folk that were assembled for Kitbull could propel that one to a win as well.  My money is on Hair Love, though.  I still can’t get it out of my hair, er, head.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Brotherhood (Directed by Meryam Joobeur)
Synopsis: Mohamed is deeply shaken and suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The emotional complexities of a family reunion and past wounds lead to tragic consequences.
Review: It’s become more and more commonplace for the short films nominated in this category to go on to be expanded to full length features and of all the selections this year, Brotherhood seems the most likely candidate to get that tap on the shoulder. Montreal film director Meryam Joobeur wrote the script for her short film after seeing two of the three brothers at the center of this story while traveling through Tunisia and that random encounter has led to a small but mighty story of a family torn apart by ISIS.  I appreciated how Joobeur made the film less about the extremism that led to the rift and focused more on the people affected by it — should she want to build out these characters a bit more I don’t think she’d have any trouble finding a fairly compelling film.

Nefta Football Club
(Directed by Yves Piat)
Synopsis: In south Tunisia, two football fan brothers bump into a headphones-wearing donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Unaware that two men are waiting for the donkey and its hidden drug stash, the brothers take the animal back home with them.
Review: An important element to these films is focus, for the filmmakers and the audience, and Nefta Football Club struggled to hold my attention for long.  It’s a quirky little film that’s building to one joke that, while admittedly an unexpectedly pleasant way to end things, feels a bit too simple for the more laborious set-up it took to get there.  Two men are searching for a donkey saddled with drugs wearing headphones that are set to play a certain song the donkey has been trained to recognize as its signal to go home.  When the animal is discovered by two brothers, it sets into (brief) motion some (brief) comic foibles as one brother knows what the powder wrapped up tightly in sacks is while the other has different designs on it.  Director Yves Piet has some editing issues that fumbles the narrative slightly but those thinking they know how this will end based on similarly pitched films may be in for a surprise.

The Neighbors’ Window
(Directed by Marshall Curry)
Synopsis: The life of a middle-aged woman with small children is shaken up when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move in across the street.
Review:  We’ve all been in a situation where we have a peek into the windows of someone across the way that may not know we can see them.  Most of the time, it’s just a sleepy baby boomer eating cereal and reading the newspaper but for a NY couple in Marshal Curry’s The Neighbors’ Window they get much more. Alli (a brilliant Maria Dizzia) and Jacob are parents in their mid 30’s settling into a routine when the apartment facing them gets two new tenants just starting their lives together.  They have frisky sex, they host dance parties, they have dinners with friends, all under the watch of Jacob and, increasingly, Alli who begins to experience some kind of longing the more she looks through her binoculars at the lives of her neighbors.  Were the film just this, it may have been just a tired story of parents wishing they were young again but a twist from Curry puts the lives of both couples into perspective in important ways.

Saria
(Directed by Bryan Buckley)
Synopsis: Inseparable orphaned sisters Saria and Ximena are fighting against daily abuse and unimaginable hardship at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala when a tragic fire claims the lives of 41 orphaned girls.
Review: Inspired by a true story, Saria is maybe the toughest watch of all the Live Action shorts this year due to its tragic finale (that’s not a spoiler, per se) but it’s also one of the best offerings thanks to it’s propulsive forward motion, solid performances, and sharp editing.  Two sisters are living a hard-knock life in a South American orphanage where they scrub floors during the day between going to school and occasionally being farmed out to men for money.  It’s an impossible life and one that Saria (an excellent Estefanía Tellez) refuses to accept as the only future for her and her sister…so she plans an escape.  Director Bryan Buckley works wonders with an untrained group of actors (most of whom were from the orphanage where this was filmed) but perhaps moves too quickly through their brief rebellion and dives headfirst into the finale which is a bit confusing.  It comes up so fast and Buckley has hit the brakes with such force that it’s jarring.

Une soeur (A Sister)
(Directed by Delphine Girard)
Synopsis: An emergency services dispatcher must tap into all her professional skills when she receives a call from a woman in a desperate situation.
Review: It’s these taut little gems that really make me appreciate the short form narrative celebrated with nominations every year. Director Delphine Girard has offered up a breathless thriller that starts off telling one story and then goes back and shows us what’s really happening.  A man and woman are traveling in a car late at night and you can sense the tension in the air.  She wants to call her sister and tell her she’s going to be late.  The conversation she has with her sister is banal but we soon learn the person on the other line is not a blood relation but is just as vital to her in the current situation.  Like last year’s gripping Live Action short nominee Madre and 2013’s The Call, plenty of suspense is mined and you’ll likely find yourself gripping your seat and holding your breath as it moves toward its conclusion.  Should it be awarded the Oscar?  I’m not so sure because it plays perhaps a bit too much on the populist popcorn entertainment side of things but it definitely earns points for grabbing the audience from the start and not letting go.

Final Thoughts
: So what will win?  Hard to say because I can see this going a few different directions.  If the Academy voters want to see more of a filmmaker they are going to go with Brotherhood as a vote of confidence in what Meryam Joobeur will do next which may include a full length version of her short film.  For the short and sweet impact of the film itself, The Neighbors’ Window might be tantalizing, though in a year where the Oscars were criticized for its lack of diversity it might be odd for a short about well-off white NYCers to be the victor.  Then again, Saria‘s strong final impact may help it overcome its weaker elements.  I wasn’t that enamored with many of the Documentary or Animated shorts this year and the same could be said for Live Action but I think there are some opportunities for better endeavors later on from this crop of filmmakers.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Life Overtakes Me (Directed by John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson)
Synopsis: Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden who have fled with their families from extreme trauma in their home countries have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Facing deportation, they withdraw from the world into a coma-like state, as if frozen, for months or even years.
Review: Available on Netflix, this documentary poses an interesting question surrounding refugee families awaiting uncertain citizenship decisions and their children who exhibit signs of a rare but growing condition.  While it doesn’t outright suggest the children are faking their symptoms, it doesn’t exactly shy away from the parallels between positive decisions on asylum and the sudden recovery of afflicted children with Resignation Syndrome.  I can’t say this one held me in its grasp for long (though at 39 minutes it’s one of the longest) because that nagging sense of doubt started to creep up more and more as the film progressed.  It doesn’t help the three families we meet are strikingly similar and don’t offer much in the way of tactile interest…there’s a curated sense of compassion at play here and between the chilly shots of frozen landscapes and a plodding pace it’s a surprisingly difficult film to warm up to.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl)
(Directed by Carol Dysinger)
Synopsis: Over the course of 15 years, a class of young girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods in war-torn Kabul, learn to read and write, and grow together in confidence through the joy of skateboarding.
Review: If Life Overtakes Me lacked something in the way of convincingly honest intent, this documentary more than makes up for it in looking at the students of Skateistan, a non-profit set-up with the goal to empower children around the world through skateboarding and education.  Focusing on the girls of the Skateistan school in Kabul, Afghanistan, this one takes a few minutes to get running which is precious time when you’re already working with short form filmmaking.  The ramp up proves to be worth it as we hear from the pre-teen girls talk about what getting an education means to them and, more importantly, hear from their mothers why they want their children to obtain the skills they were prevented from achieving.  It’s a little rough around the edges but when it gets into a groove it really soars.  It was especially moving to hear from the teachers in this school and the way they looked at their roles in providing an education.

In the Absence
(Directed by Seung-jun Yi)
Synopsis: When the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, over three hundred people lost their lives, most of them schoolchildren. Years later, the victims’ families and survivors are still demanding justice from national authorities.
Review: The unimaginable tragedy that serves as the focus of In the Absence plays out almost in real time as we watch.  A ferry in South Korea carrying nearly 400 passengers runs into trouble and begins to sink.  As camera crews film and as those in charge drag their feet on making decisions to position themselves as saviors in the best possible light, the vessel sinks and hundreds of passengers that followed orders and stayed put in their cabins drowned while waiting to be rescued.  All of this is presented with startling clarity, largely without any editorializing – these were the facts as they happened and it was a disaster for all involved.  It’s tough stuff and listening to the parents still in shock all these years later as they demand answers from a government that deals in policies of silence and cover-ups, you’ll feel your blood boil as the tears well up.

Walk Run Cha-Cha
(Directed by Laura Nix)
Synopsis: Chipaul and Millie Cao reunited in 1980s Los Angeles after being separated by the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they become ballroom dancers to reconnect again and make up for lost time.
Review: A documentary produced for the New York Times popular OpEd series, this is one of the blessedly lighter toned subjects.  Audiences watching all five of the nominees in one sitting will likely find this small but slight bit of joy a nice reprieve from the darker offerings and I say more power to them.  This is a nice little look at the lives of a couple that met in Vietnam in the ’70s and reconnected in the ‘80s in California.  Through their love of ballroom dance, they leave the churn of the daily grind behind and discover a new rhythm to their relationship.  While the piece ends with a fairly lovely dance for the couple, I couldn’t help feel like one half of the couple was more invested in the dance than the other and was the driving force for their participation…but I’ll let you see it and decide for yourself.

St. Louis Superman
(Directed by Sami Khan & Smriti Mundhra)
Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr., a leading Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, must overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a bill critical to his community.
Review: Our political system is crying out for new voices and new perspectives and after spending some cinematic time with him I feel that Missouri representative Bruce Franks Jr. is the embodiment of that necessary change.  Though he doesn’t look like your typical suit-wearing politician, he’s making a difference in and for his community by calling youth violence the public health epidemic it is.  Pushing for a bill to recognize this, his drive is fueled by a loss close to home and a hope for the future he still has faith in when others may not.  All politicians should sit and watch this and find ways they can connect with their community the way Franks has with his, though a surprising epilogue is a strong reminder how fragile we all are to our own demons.

Final Thoughts
: Another tough year for documentaries with not a lot of sun on this side of the street.  My gut is leaning toward In the Absence; even though it has likely the hardest subject matter to watch unfold, it’s the first South Korean film to be nominated in this category (much like Parasite is the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best International Feature) and it’s well put together.  My personal favorites were St. Louis Superman and Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl) but if I’m being totally honest I didn’t find any to be quite on the quality level as in years past.  Too many came off like half-baked cuts of longer narratives and I wish there was more focus on consolidating a voice, a vision, a statement into this short-form style.  It leaves things too ambiguous when you have something important to say and leave your sentence trailing….right?