Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey is bonkers movie that works in fits and starts. It has some wonderful highs that emerge from a muddled narrative. It has a kitchen sink approach to its story and subject. Throw everything in and see what works.

The film follows Harley Quinn, a comic book villain who is the paramour of Batman’s greatest nemesis The Joker. She first appeared in the truly awful film Suicide Squad played by Margot Robbie. Margot Robbie is fantastic in this role. She devours every frame with glee. She is having an absolute ball playing this part and it shows through every time she’s on screen. Harley breaks up with the Joker in the opening credits. He took her from a tough yet sensitive criminal psychologist to a psychotic super villain and without him in her life, she is left trying to pick up the pieces of her identity.

That’s her story. There is a plethora of additional characters in this movie to get through. After a life of crime and cruelty to those around her, she has made a great deal of enemies. Without the Joker protecting her it’s open season on Harley. Everyone wants to take her out including Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor. McGregor is completely unhinged in this movie. He is a ball of insecurities hiding underneath some extremely grotesque violent tendencies. His performance here is at times fun, at times, horrifying, and at times completely magnetic. It’s fun to see a character in a movie that is truly surprising. You never know what he’s going to do when he shows up on screen.

Roman hires a singer named Black Canary to be his chauffeur after watching her fight off a couple of thugs who were trying to take advantage of a drunken Harley. She is just trying to get by and stay out of it, but the more she sees of Roman, the more she gets involved. Roman’s big problem in the movie is retrieving a diamond from a pick pocket. The whole back story with the diamond is dumb. It’s just dumb plotting. I won’t even get into it except to say that it is just a dumb plot device and isn’t worth getting into. He’s after it. She’s stolen it. The pick pocket gives a bad performance. She is wooden, stiff, and unnatural throughout.

A character that isn’t bland however, is Huntress played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It is fun watching her character unfold throughout the movie. To say more would give too much away. Suffice to say, she is awesome and should have her own movie. Last but not least is Renee Montoya a detective who speaks in 80’s cop cliches. She’s fun, but not much is done with her aside from the cliches bit.

That is a lot of characters and the movie takes a lot of its runtime shuffling them around and trying to get them into position for the climactic confrontation. It’s a great confrontation. The finale is fun and wild and unique, but it takes a long time to get there.

In the end, this movie was fun. There’s enough charm here to get through the lackluster elements, and the performances from Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor are more than worth it. It’s a messy, violent, and funny movie. Is it a great movie? No, but for the most part it is my cup of tea – B+

Onward

Onward is the latest from Pixar, and it is a sucker punch to the tear ducts. It has an emotional punch that really works and really hits home, however there are times when those tears feel like a foregone conclusion, and the whole movies feels almost paint by numbers at times.

The story concerns a magical world in which the mystical creatures from our mythology are real. However with the advent of technology magic is forgotten and their magical world begins to look an awful lot like our world complete with cars, cell phones, and computers. We meet Ian a teenage elf who is shy and awkward, and his rambunctious blow hard of an older brother named Barley. Their dad passed away when Barley was a kid and Ian was just a baby, but he left them a magic wand that could bring him back for one day and one one day only. The boys use the magic wand, but the magic crystal fails and only the lower half of dad is brought back. The boys go on an epic quest to find another magic crystal to complete the spell before time runs out.

The animation is of course beautiful. The world is wonderfully rendered and filled with delightful little visual elements. The voice talent is great across the board. Chris Pratt is especially effective as Barley. There are some wonderful heart breaking moments as when Ian listens to an old tape recording of his dad and tries to talk to him through the recording. It’s a brilliant little moment that is jam packed with pathos and a keenly inventive imagination. There are also some delightful moments of adventure as when Ian has to learn to drive while being chased by angry fairies. There are wonderful visual gags involving a spell that can change the size of objects. It is genuinely funny and sincerely affecting.

The problem I have is in the plotting of the film. It is such a run of the mill plot that it feels entirely predictable throughout. It’s a standard quest movie. If you’ve seen one of these types of movies, you’ve seen them all and the plot will tick off every box at the exact moment those boxes are supposed to be ticked off. At the ten minute mark this will happen. At the 30 minute mark this chase will occur. At the 45 minute mark, the two brothers will have an argument. At the hour mark this plot point will happen. It’s a classic three act structure that has been done a billion times before. Those tearful moments hit at the exact same moment they hit in every Pixar movie. That’s not to say that the tears aren’t genuine. They are real and I felt all the feelings during this movie, but it does say something when I can almost set my watch to the moment when I will begin to tear up.

I think a little more time with the characters at the beginning might have helped this plotting issue. There isn’t a lot of time wasted getting right into the quest. Maybe a few extra minutes with Ian and Barley at the start would have shaken things up a little bit.

The movie is filled with inventive and delightful little moments. They clearly didn’t spend time on a new plot structure, but they did spend time coming up with fun twists on the use of magic. There are some truly clever moments throughout the movie that keep it engaging and buoyant. There are great moments that make this movie completely worth watching despite it’s predictable nature.

It is my cup of tea – B+

Uncut Gems

I hated this movie. I rarely hate movies. I find something redemptive in every movie I see, and this film is not without its merits, but I just found it unpleasant and nasty. This movie is like the drunk couple at the bar who get into a screaming match on the sidewalk.

The film follows Howard Ratner played very well by Adam Sandler. He is a jeweler in New York and a man addicted to the thrill of gambling and living life on the edge. He pawns rings to pay for bets that will hopefully cover debts he has to other gamblers and loan sharks. His life is an unpleasant series of anxiety inducing misadventures. This could lead to an ever escalating build up of tension and suspense, but instead just consists of a swirling headache inducing camera and movie that is constantly yelling at the audience.

All dialogue in this movie is shouted. The characters scream at each other. They don’t talk. Everyone is unpleasant in their own ways. Howard is seamy and conniving. His mistress is all insecurities and weaponized sexuality. The thugs sent to collect money from Howard are just gnarly punks who bully Howard and everyone around them. These are not people I want to ever see again. Maybe that’s a credit to the actors playing them that these people are so convincing in their unpleasantness that I never want to see any of them ever again, but it doesn’t do much for my enjoyment of the movie.

The film is shot in a nauseating manner. It’s all close ups and medium closeups that swirl and move too much. It proves extremely difficult to focus on any one object in the frame. An early shot in which Howard walks into his shop is a long tracking shot in which Howard dodges in and out of focus, other characters heads block the view, and some one is always standing in the middle of the frame where the shouldn’t be. It could convey a message about Howard as a slippery character who is hard to pin down, but it feels like sloppy cinematography. It genuinely gave me a headache watching this movie.

Adam Sandler gives a good performance. He is totally unlike himself. He is completely believable as a shop owner that I have seen before in real life. He is really good. I just never want to see him again and couldn’t wait for the movie to be over.

Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe it’s a movie about immersing its audience in the anxiety inducing world of its characters. The problem was that the anxiety I was feeling wasn’t about caring about Howard’s fate. I was repelled by the story, characters, and filmmaking on display. I’ve never had a movie make me actively want to escape it before. Maybe that’s a success for the film.

I found it loud and nasty. I found its positive features swallowed up by its negatives. It’s not my cup of tea at all. D

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest directorial effort is really great for the most part. Tarantino abandons his usual bag of tricks for a serious and thought provoking dive into the past, then in the last 40 minutes he throws it out the window for a different movie entirely.

The story concerns fictional actor Rick Dalton as he circles the drain of his career. He’s played perfectly by Leonardo Dicaprio. Dalton was once going to be a big star. He was the lead in a western TV series, now he makes B-movies and appears sporadically as bad guys on tv westerns. By his side is Cliff Booth a stunt man who has a checkered past. He breezes through life totally at ease with himself and the times they’re living in. Those times are the late 1960’s. Everything is changing, and a new breed of movie star is taking over the world Dalton used to inhabit. This new star is Sharon Tate played by Margot Robbie. To say she plays Tate is inaccurate. She more behaves and exists on screen in a nearly wordless role.

Tarantino’s previous films reply on endless scenes of dialogue. His characters are verbose to the point of self parody. Here he eschews his typical dialogue and allows the camera to tell his story. He employs the camera as his storyteller here and the effect is at times hypnotic. He shows these people instead of having them explain themselves. Some people may dislike this change, to me it was exciting to watch. There’s snappy dialogue for sure, but he is able to utilize the camera here in a way he never has before.

The film follows three different episodes in these people’s lives. Dalton is trying his best to give a good performance in a western TV show. It’s not much of a part, but his struggle to give it his all is brilliantly portrayed. Dalton has a fascinating conversation with a little girl on set about acting and what acting is. She is a delight. He then flubs his lines, but refuses to let the director cut. The camera holds on him as he desperately recomposes himself and gives the lines again. DiCaprio is great in this scene showing a man barely holding himself together. As he falls in and out of character, he shows so much under the surface. He has wrapped his worth up in his career, and failure on set means he has no worth. He’s heartbreaking and riveting to watch.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth got all the acclaim and awards during the Oscars and it was deserved. He doesn’t get the big show piece scenes that DiCaprio gets, but he handles every moment with a cool calm authority. He feels totally at ease on screen. He is the man of the present. He likes the hippies. He likes the freedom that the 60’s represents. He is the present unconcerned with success and the future.

Finally, there is Margot Robbie who just exists on screen. Much has been made of the size of her part and the fact that she never interacts with the other two leads. This is intentional. She is the future. She is fleeting and beautiful and enticing. She is not a character so much as an ideal that everyone is chasing. Robbie behaves and wanders through the film enjoying life and the promise of things to come.

The movie is fantastic to me for the first two hours. The first two hours ride a metaphorical wave through this world of the past. Then in the last 35 minutes, the movie takes a detour and turns into a standard Tarantio film. It launches into ultra violence and bloodshed. It embarks on a gleefully brutal murder spree that for me undoes the metaphorical context the film has built up so far. It re-contextualizes the entire movie up until that point and just doesn’t work for me. It is wildly entertaining violence if you like violence. It is classic Tarantino if you like Tarantino. But for me it shifts the movie too harshly and it feels manipulative. The movie leads the audience down a certain path and then at the last second says “gotcha!” It feels manipulative and mean spirited.

I love a lot of this movie. I have great respect for what Tarantino did here. It’s not a home run for me, but I can recommend it. It’s mostly my cup of tea. – B+

Parasite (2019)

Parasite is an expertly crafted movie. It is made with such precision and such a clear vision that it would be impossible to deny its skill and quality. It shifts genres constantly and the shifts work and feel genuine. However the film left me pretty cold and disinterested.

The film follows the impoverished Kim family as the son, Ki-woo, gets a job as a tutor to a wealthy family. The Kim family then worms their way into the wealthy family’s employ. The father becomes the chauffeur. The mother becomes the housekeeper. The sister becomes the tutor and counselor for the young rambunctious son. Watching the family con their way into these positions makes for a riveting first half of the movie. It’s like watching a heist film. It clips along with a narrative momentum that keeps the film engaging and enjoyable. However things go wrong as they must and the movie transforms into a horror film, then a Hitchcockian suspense tale, then a dark Greek tragedy. The film gets steadily more grotesque and violent in the second half. This will turn many people off.

The movie is all about class warfare and the resentments felt by the poor underclass toward the wealthy upper class. This is an interesting theme, but the film just ends up feeling cynical and full of disdain. The poor hate the rich, yet they subject themselves to their wishes. They seethe against their arrogance and lap up their scraps. It turns this poor family into something more like animals than real people toward the end. Maybe that’s the point he’s trying to get across, but because of the tragic nature of the films ending that animalistic quality feels like an inevitability. There isn’t hope in this film. It offers no hope of advancement or positivity. It even taunts the audience with a version of a happy ending before snatching it away. This is a cynical movie. It is a mean spirited movie at times.

That cynicism is displayed with some of the best cinematography of the year. It is beautifully lit and the shot choices are perfect in every moment. The editing is also top notch. This film is expertly constructed. It is absolutely a gorgeously made piece of cinema. There is a central montage in the film that works the story into a fever pitch. It is full of exhilarating narrative that builds to the Kim family’s successful infiltration of the rich family. The montage is brilliant and it is the popular centerpiece of the film. It is deserving of the praise it has received.

However, for me it’s not a movie I want to watch again. It’s not a movie that speaks to me. I don’t need a happy ending or a positive moral of the story. I just need a point. If I’m going to take a bath in cynicism I need a reason for doing so. This film shows a dark and unpleasant world and then just says that’s how it is. It is an indictment of capitalism, but it doesn’t offer anything better. It doesn’t show any alternatives. It just says the poor are oppressed and can never rise out of that oppression. I need more than that.

I admire the craft and skill that made this film. I’m turned off by the story that craft was put to. It’s not my cup of tea, but man is it a well made cup of tea. – B

Jumanji: The Next Level

This sequel to a reboot is a little too long and a little overstuffed, but man is it fun. It is a very pleasant romp that is the perfect answer for a dreary day. Delightful performances and some genuinely exciting adventure set pieces make this one worth watching.

The film picks up a couple years after 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in which a group of high schoolers, lead by Spencer,were sucked inside the adventure video game Jumanji. Those kids are now college students who are once again pulled into the video game Jumanji. This is an identical setup, but the movies finds enough new tricks to keep it fresh and make this iteration worth watching. The best new addition is the fact that the kids aren’t the only ones in the game. This time Spencer’s grandfather and his grandfather’s friend are pulled into the game too. They take on the forms of the game characters. In this case, Danny DeVito is in the body of Dwayne Johnson, and Danny Glover finds himself in the body of Kevin Hart. These two have an absolute ball giving impressions of these two. Kevin Hart in particular nails Danny Glover’s cadence and delivery. Dwayne Johnson is just delightful with his New Jersey accent and the cantankerous and befuddled Devito.

But Johnson and Hart aren’t the only ones who get to have fun with the premise. Jack Black and Awkwafina get to play against type and cut loose. They both are given personalities that fly in the face of everything they should be playing, yet it works. The only one more or less stuck as the straight man is Karen Gillan. Which is unfortunate because she is a versatile performer who can play anything. However the movie needs a steady force and Gillan supplies that perfectly.

The movie takes its time to have fun. It explores this premise and these characters often to the detriment of the plot. The movie is plotted oddly and the pacing can feel quite off at various times. The movie seems to reach a perfect climax and conclusion long before it launches into its big cgi finale. The movie is best when Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are arguing about who Jumanji is, and whether DeVito ever was as fit as Dwayne Johnson.

The film has some really exciting adventure sequences. The heroes are chased by an army of ostriches and the resulting sequence is well executed and a lot of fun. There is another scene where they are trying to cross a canyon using a series of bridges pursued by rabid monkeys. It’s silly, but both scenes work. They are fun, exciting, and a little silly. That’s pretty much this movie in a nut shell.

Is it a good movie? Not entirely. There are too many characters. There is too much plot in a movie that abandons its plot on multiple occasions. There are problems with the pacing, but in the end it’s so darn charming and fun to watch, that I will give it pass. It charmed me into submission. If you’re looking for a light and diverting adventure film, this will be perfect. It is my cup of tea – B+

The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell

The Farewell is a fantastic movie that feels real and authentic in every moment. It employs a steady hand behind the camera and some of the best performances of last year in front of the camera. It is a wonderful little movie that is deeply rewarding to the viewer.

The Farewell follows Billi Wang a young Chinese-American woman who is living in New York when she finds out that her beloved grandma Nai Nai has cancer and only has a short time left to live. Nai Nai lives in China and everyone in the family agrees not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis. They decide to put together a hasty wedding as a cover so that the whole family can get together and say goodbye to Nai Nai. Billi and her parents travel to China even though everyone is convinced Billi will not be able to control her emotions and spill the secret to Nai Nai.

The movie is endlessly fascinating in its depiction of the cultural differences between the family. It’s pointed out repeatedly how in America hiding a diagnosis would be illegal, whereas in China it is common and seen as a merciful thing. The family will bear the burden of the truth and allow the ill to live their life free from concern about their illness. The idea of the individual vs the family is also addressed in a deeply poignant scene between Billi, her father, and her uncle. In China each individual is simply a part of a greater whole and they must subject themselves to the will of the family.

These differences in perspective are beautifully illustrated by the main character Billi and her position as an outsider. She is played by Awkwafina. She is a revelation here. She is convincing in every moment. Her performance hits every right note and never falters. There are so many wonderfully written and executed scenes, but one in particular that stands out is when she breaks down describing her family’s move to America when she was a child. It could very easily fall into the “Oscar Clip” style of over acting that so many performers simply devour, but she doesn’t. She plays the truth of the moment and is more deeply affecting that most performances of last year. The fact she wasn’t nominated for best actress is astonishing. She deserved it.

The supporting players are all utterly convincing in every moment. This feels like a true family unit that has years of history behind every moment. Especially effective are Tzi Ma as Billi’s father and Jiang Yongbo as Billi’s uncle. These two are brilliant. Jiang Yongbo has the bigger moments. He delivers the great speech about individuals vs family. He also has a stunning speech during the wedding that tears the heart out. But Tzi Ma has a quiet and steady grounding force that supports and enables everything going on around him. He is fantastic in a smaller yet essential role. Zhao shu-zhen plays Nai Nai and is absolutely delightful. She is full of joy and love and exudes positivity. She holds it all together. The last one that must be mentioned is Diana Lin as Billi’s mother. She has a tightrope to walk as a performer. She could easily fall into the strident and uncaring mother. She could easily become a petulant and indignant martyr. She has so many wonderful moments conveyed with her glance or glare. She conveys the reality and inner life of her character beautifully. Everyone in this movie is deserving of praise. This is a large cast with great performances across the board.

So much credit for this film goes to Lulu Wang who wrote and directed the film. It’s based on her actual experiences with her grandmother. The film feels so real because it was written from truth, but also because of the way Wang holds her camera and holds her shots. She allows the moments to play out. She allows her actors room to play. She has an almost invisible camera style that just enhances the reality of the actions on screen. Wang has also created some incredible scenes using language. There is an amazing scene in which Nai Nai is in the hospital and the doctor speaks English. Billi and the doctor has a conversation in English about Nai Nai’s health in front of her. Some people understand what they are saying, some don’t. This scene is brilliantly executed and absolutely riveting to watch. Scenes like this are scattered throughout the film. How we communicate or don’t communicate is an essential idea in this movie. It is so much fun to see.

This film is billed as a comedy, and while it can be funny, it is a lot more than a comedy. It’s also not entirely a drama. It is deeply effective, but it isn’t all tears and dragging the audience through the hell of the situation. This is a fun movie to watch. It is a joyous movie to take in. It is a movie that everyone should check out. It is worth it. Watch this movie.

This is my cup of tea. – A+