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Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Since its inception, the DC Extended Universe has had recurring problems, largely relating to excess. Overly complex narratives, over-stylised but unimaginative depiction of abilities and drawn out set pieces have resulted in bloated and sometimes inelegant pieces like Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Aquaman. Perhaps appropriately, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn emancipates itself from the franchise’s conventions by having fun with being unconventional. Director Cathy Yan delivers a film that is knowingly witty and embraces the scrappy attitude of its characters. The titular figures of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) do not fit any easy definition of superhero or even supervillain, with little regard for any higher purpose, largely self-centred and yet, when push comes to shove, able to bring their significant talents together for some pretty impressive work. For these talented but unappreciated and largely underestimated ladies to fight against crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) gives the film’s gender (not to mention racial) politics a progressive slant, and BOPATFEOOHQ integrates this opposition smoothly into its overall milieu, delivering a hugely enjoyable crime action flick of smack ‘em whack ‘em delights.

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Bombshell

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Bombshell is a story of our time, and one that we may wish was not. Based on real events, the film tells the story of sexual harassment cases brought by Fox News staff against CEO Roger Ailes (played under several layers of makeup by John Lithgow). Around this true story, which ultimately led to the dismissal of Ailes and major damages for the victims (although check the supertext at the end for a serious gut punch), director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph deliver on several fronts. Bombshell is a stirring character study, especially of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). All three leads are great in their representation of women at different stages of their careers. Carlson is the most established and aggrieved, leading the campaign against Ailes. Kelly is more cautious, herself a victim but, in her own words, loyal to Ailes and to Fox News as a whole. Pospisil is a new recruit, naïve in her worship of Fox News, whose encounter with the seedier side of the network provides much of the film’s heartbreak. Bombshell is also a gripping legal drama that, similar to Just Mercy, eschews courtroom histrionics in favour of smart legal wrangling. The film is also a damning indictment of institutionalised toxic masculinity. Aside from one scene, the sexual harassment only appears in the accounts and testimony of the plaintiffs. This is hugely important, because it focuses attention on the victims of Ayers’ predation. Despite Roach’s flashy stylistics that echo the style of Fox News itself, including his glamorous leading ladies and some direct-to-camera addresses, the film is neither titillating nor explicit. Rather, it gives voice to the silent masses who do not speak out for fear of reprisals. The telling of such stories in popular mass entertainment brings these otherwise silenced voices into the mainstream, allowing for a wider conversation. In facilitating this conversation, Bombshell demonstrates the social potential of cinema, while also being a compelling drama in its own right.

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino loves film. He also loves television and music. He loves writing and actors. All of these loves are on display in his latest film, which works as two fairly charming if thinly related tales set in 1969. The first tale concerns fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose career in TV westerns has left him with little to do other than play bit parts in episodes. Rick feels used up and past it, Tarantino’s unsympathetic close-ups expose the slightly sagging face, wrinkles and overweight physique. Rick’s best friend and stunt double Cliff Bole (Brad Pitt) takes a more laconic view of the world, his body still in great shape as a shirtless scene emphasises. The second story concerns Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her seemingly carefree swan around Hollywood. The connection between the two stories is mostly due to location, as Sharon and her husband Roman Polanski live next door to Rick and their presence exacerbates his frustration. The viewer may also be frustrated as Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is often meandering and, as is often the case with Tarantino, indulgent. Long sequences of driving coupled with longer sequences of actors playing actors acting add up to little more than Tarantino’s delight in this material. There are some strong set pieces – a visit to an old western set plays out like a western showdown, complete with tension; a brilliant action sequence that serves as the film’s climax, but these sequences punctuate an otherwise aimless meander through this landscape. Brief cameos from the likes of Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino allow these performers to simply spout a few pungent speeches, while side scenes involving Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Rick’s stint making spaghetti westerns add little. Ultimately the film adds up to very little, and while Tarantino’s love for his material is palatable, he is unlikely to engender similar affection in the viewer.

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Mary Queen of Scots

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Mary Queen of Scots is a film of Ps and Qs. It possesses perfect performances from its entire cast, especially its leading queens, Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I. Ronan has been an electrifying screen presence since Atonement, and her subsequent roles in such varied fare as Hanna, Brooklyn and Lady Bird have highlighted her extraordinary talent and charisma. Here she excels as Mary, a woman driven by ambition but tempered by compassion, focused on achieving the throne of England and seeing herself as the saviour of Scotland. Presented by director Josie Rourke as well as costume designer Alexandra Byrne as a Joan of Arc-esque figure, Mary commands the screen and her court, until the political power plays of her courtiers undermine her. Meanwhile Elizabeth – played with anguish and steely resolve by Robbie – manages her court with Machiavellian cunning often disguised as acquiescence. The scheming amongst nobles both English and Scottish is a narrative parallel between the two major strands of Beau Willimon’s screenplay. Rourke expresses these strands with visual parallels as well, cutting between graphic matches of each queen or between similar drapes or sheets. These veils are significant as these women are veiled from the world around them, unable to trust the men whom they work with while these same men plot against her. This is the grimmest of the film’s Ps, as Mary Queen of Scots is a tale of two women encountering the ruthlessness of the patriarchy. Threatened by these women who offer compassion, understanding and equal religious rights to their subjects, the nobles of both countries manipulate and manoeuvre around their sovereigns, resorting to any means necessary to further their pursuit of power. The final image of Mary’s face, which recalls the opening scene, underscores the tragic tone of this grim portrait of the parallels of power and the pitilessness of patriarchy.

Oscar Reflections

KimmelThe Oscars are said and done for another year, and overall I am very pleased with the results. I can agree with the winners, I applaud many of the speeches and the show was a delight to watch.

Most importantly, how did I do? I made predictions in 19 of the 24 categories, and as the show started I did very well, racking up correct prediction after correct prediction. This was pleasing if a little predictable, but as things continued surprises started to appear, such as Get Out winning Original Screenplay and Dunkirk picking up Editing. Overall, I correctly predicted the winners in 15 out of my 19 picks, which at 78% is pretty good going. I’m no gambler, but every year I am tempted.

Picture Correctly Predicted? Directing Correctly Predicted?
The Shape of Water No Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water Yes
Call Me by Your Name Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Darkest Hour Jordan Peele, Get Out
Dunkirk Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Get Out Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread  Makeup and Hairstyling
The Post  Darkest Hour Yes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Victoria & Abdul
Wonder 
Actor Actress
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour Yes Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Yes
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Daniel Day,Lewis, Phantom Thread Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Meryl Streep, The Post
Supporting Actor Supporting Actress
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Yes Allison Janney, I, Tonya Yes
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project  Mary J. Blige, Mudbound 
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water  Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird 
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Adapted Screenplay Original Screenplay
Call Me by Your Name  Yes Get Out No
The Disaster Artist The Big Sick 
Logan  Lady Bird
Molly’s Game  The Shape of Water 
Mudbound  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Original Score Original Song
The Shape of Water Yes ‘Remember Me’ from Coco No
Dunkirk “Mighty River” from Mudbound
Phantom Thread “Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name 
Star Wars: The Last Jedi  “Stand Up for Something” from Marshall
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman 
Sound Editing   Sound Mixing
Dunkirk Yes Dunkirk  Yes
Baby Driver  Baby Driver 
Blade Runner 2049  Blade Runner 2049 
The Shape of Water The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Production Design Visual Effects
The Shape of Water Yes Blade Runner 2049 Yes
Beauty and the Beast Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Blade Runner 2049  Kong: Skull Island
Darkest Hour  Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Dunkirk  War for the Planet of the Apes
Costume Design Cinematography
Phantom Thread  Yes Blade Runner 2049 Yes
Beauty and the Beast Darkest Hour 
Darkest Hour Dunkirk
The Shape of Water  Mudbound
Victoria & Abdul The Shape of Water
Film Editing Animated Feature
Dunkirk  No Coco Yes
Baby Driver The Boss Baby
I, Tonya  The Breadwinner
The Shape of Water Ferdinand
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Loving Vincent

The biggest delights for me personally were one predicted winner and one unexpected though desired victory. When Roger Deakins was announced as the winner of Best Cinematography, I applauded from my sofa. After 14 nominations and such fantastic work in The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Skyfall, Sicario and many more, it was an absolute delight to see Deakins finally honoured for the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049. Well shot sir, well shot.

90th Academy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018

I wanted The Shape of Water to win Best Picture but expected that award to go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Over the course of the show, deviations from my expectations made that less likely, beginning with Get Out winning Original Screenplay. In recent years, Best Picture has also won Screenplay, Editing or Directing (making The Departed a quintessential winner for 2006). Since Martin McDonagh was not nominated for Directing, a likely win for him and the film was Original Screenplay. Without that, and with Editing going to Dunkirk, Picture became more open. And once Guillermo Del Toro won Directing, The Shape of Water seemed ever more likely. But in my scepticism, I did not see the members of AMPAS voting for a fantasy film. When Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the winner, I applauded again. For a fantasy/monster/sci fi movie to win Best Picture shows that the Academy members are not as conservative as they used to be, embracing more radical and surprising choices.

The Shape of Water

The show as a whole was very well done. Jimmy Kimmell hosted with great humour, wryness and affection. I especially like Kimmell’s gag of bringing in audiences, a move he and his team pioneered last year by arranging a tour group to come into the Kodak Theater, and built on this year by taking several movie stars into a nearby screening of A Wrinkle in Time. Had I been in that cinema, my mind would have been blown by epic proportions with the sudden arrival of Guillermo Del Toro, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Margot Robbie, Ansel Elgort, Mark Hamill and the rest. Plus a hotdog cannon!208643A3Perhaps the strongest legacy of this year’s Oscars, however, will be the politics. After a few years of controversy over all white acting nominees, the recent scandals over harassment and the subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns prompted debate and resistance. Kimmel named and shamed Harvey Weinstein as only the second person to be expelled from AMPAS; actresses received greater prominence as various winners of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role presented major awards. Last year’s Best Actress Emma Stone presented Directing to Guillermo Del Toro, and two pairs of Oscar winners presented this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress awards: Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren to Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour and Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence to Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, respectively. McDormand made perhaps the most impassioned speech of the night when she encouraged all the female nominees to stand up, be counted and be counted.

TimesUpSome might complain about this political element, either arguing that the Oscars are about art which is not political, or that the Oscars are entertainment and too frivolous or commercial to engage in politics. I reject both these positions because art is and always has been political, and with its extraordinary reach it would be a terrible waste if cinema were not political. The Academy recognised this through a retrospective on war cinema, dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces and introduced touchingly by actor and Vietnam veteran Wes Studi. Secondly, entertainment expresses social and political concerns purely by its production within particular contexts – the dominance of men in the film industry and cinematic output is a political reality and one that is long overdue a challenge. As recent films have demonstrated, you can have hugely successful films with female directors and leads, and the studios apparently taking such risks demonstrates that the only risk is to conservative ideology. For certain, time is up, and my heartiest applause to every presenter and winner at the 90th Annual Academy Awards who used that grandest stage and widest audience to highlight the state of their industry and to call for change.

McDormand

90th Oscar Predictions Part Two: May I Lead?

Actress

Actress in a Leading Role 

Of the four performances I have seen (I, Tonya being the unknown), I loved all of these displays. Sally Hawkins demonstrated her extraordinary ability to communicate without words, while Saoirse Ronan managed to make a potentially infuriating character endearing. Frances McDormand also expresses everything about her remarkable character through every part of her performance, and Meryl Streep is as wonderful as ever. If I have to pick one that I enjoyed the most, I go (perhaps suspiciously) for the one I saw most recently. Come Oscar night, however, I predict that Frances McDormand will pick up her second golden baldie.

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird (preferred winner)

Meryl Streep, The Post 

Actor in a Leading Role

Actor

Gary Oldman will win. There, I said it. With all the plaudits, the physical transformation, the associated baggage of playing a historical figure who is widely beloved (though not without controversy), I will be staggered if Darkest Hour does not pick up Best Actor in a Leading Role. That said, I was less impressed by Oldman’s Winston Churchill as I was by the other English character whose player is nominated. I know he’s got three already, and an award here would be something of a retirement gift for a man who declared this is his last role, but of the four performances I have seen here (sorry, Denzel, I’ll get to it), I would vote for DDL.

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread (preferred winner)

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (predicted winner)

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq 

 

Suicide Squad

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Earlier in 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice began the assembly of a super team, but before Justice League arrives, DC offers Suicide Squad, a colourful collection of nefarious folks including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Assembled by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller (a supremely supercilious Viola Davis) and led by crack commando Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), these misanthropic personalities are typical fare for writer-director David Ayer, whose previous films Fury, Street Kings and Harsh Times featured violent men doing violent work. Suicide Squad lacks the savagery of those films, the supposed ruthlessness of the super villains largely toned down, while the meandering plot repeatedly introduces characters and replays events unnecessarily, and the various pop songs associated with particular characters are more distracting that engaging. Worse, the charismatic and potentially terrifying Joker (Jared Leto) is sidelined and feels like an intrusion from another film, and might have been better left for a future instalment.

Ayer redeems himself with some stylistic set pieces, the Squad hurling bullets, mallet, flames, boomerangs and bodies with elegant brutality. Central to these and probably the best thing in the film is Deadshot, a smart combination of wisecracking humour and deadly precision, and the character with the most relatable arc. Smith and Ayer make a virtue of the clichéd character traits to create a wounded but unquestionably badass antihero. Smith could have been in Independence Day: Resurgence this year, and based on the evidence, he made a wise decision.

Mid-Year Review

By the Beard of Kubrick, we’re already half way through by the year! 2016 seems to be disappearing faster than good sense and decency in the UK electorate. But the movies keep coming thick and fast, and like a good critic, I need to rank them in my arbitrary and completely subjective fashion.

As we’re six months through the year (and I do a top 12 overall), I rank my top six films so far, based on the cited date for UK general release (so don’t go telling me ‘That film came out last year!’). Therefore, with much aplomb (which you can provide yourself), here are my top six films of the first half of 2016:

1. Room (15 January 2016)

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A sublime, magnificent, heartwarming, heartbreaking tale of the terrible and the wonderful.

 

2. Zootropolis (25 March 2016)

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A brilliantly inventive, hilariously zany, poignant and intelligent anthropomorphic comedy.

 

3. Eye in the Sky (15 April 2016)

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A tense, nerve-shredding thriller of surveillance, globalization, military, political and ethical conundrums.

 

4. Spotlight (29 January 2016)

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An absorbing, compelling journalism thriller about community, tradition and responsibility.

 

5. The Big Short (22 January 2016)

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An equal parts hilarious and horrifying tale of economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

 

6. The Revenant (15 January 2016)

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An immersive, ethereal yet tactile portrait of survival, nature and revenge.

That’s a pretty good bunch, so if any of these don’t make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year, 2016 will have been a very impressive year indeed.

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.