Cathy Yan’s bubblegum-hued crime saga Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B-) is another origin story in the DC Extended Universe and follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as she joins forces with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and several vigilantes to fight Gotham City crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. The film is chock-full of throwaway gags, gallows humor and cartoonish violence with a tinge of sisterhood power, but it’s rarely as sharp as it needs to be. Yan scrambles the enterprise with flashbacks, animation and witty title cards, but often it feels like a magic trick to disguise a threadbare story. Although McGregor is miscast and not menacing enough, the women in the film are marvelous. Robbie is wonderful as the devil-may-care antihero, and Bell is a sonic sensation. The stunts and wall-to-wall action should please fans of the genre; it reaches mightily but doesn’t quite take the flight it promises.
J.J. Abrams returns to the helm for the final entry of the legendary Jedi v Sith sequel cycle, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (B), a populist pretzel twisting space and time to conclude a myriad of loose plot points while pouring on salty nostalgia in generous doses. This space opera saga finale works best when its trio of next-generation heroes Rey, Finn and Poe embark on snappy adventures together, less in a murky subplot involving a villainous blast from the past and even less in its introduction of new characters to an overstuffed narrative. Abrams scores a propulsive and often thrilling first hour and gets the humor right with fan-pleasing quips and gags but finds himself a bit tangled when trying to shoehorn the late Carrie Fisher’s unused footage from past movies into cogent current conversations and striving to make sense of some lapses in lineage for its dueling family trees. Visually, the film is splendid, with a few epic tricks up its sleeves including a pretty Bollywood planet and a deft lightsaber battle on the high seas. There are some clever treasure quests, stunning revelations and a few generally poignant moments, sometimes bookended by an occasionally soggy and somewhat schizophrenic salmagundi. In trying to please his fanboy/fangirl constituencies, Abrams is all too likely to replace originality with more origins. The film is indeed haunted by ghosts, some of the high-spirited variety and others fossilized or zombified with creaky bones of a lumbering legacy. It’s a testament to the acting chops of Daisy Ridley as protagonist Rey and Adam Driver as her frenemy Ren that they acquit themselves admirably amidst some mumbo jumbo logic. The over four-decade series has likely outlasted its ability to surprise, but its mirth and myth making factory still thrills. This frenzied film hyperdrives to a generally smooth landing.
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.
This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. The discarded duo of cowboy and fighter with a backdrop of a classic industry in upheaval almost seems like the makers have Toy Story 2 on the mind. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
If you’re seeking a summer chore to catch up on, look no further than Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (C-), the twelfth and promised final film in 20th Century Fox’s Marvel X-Men series. It is a touch below average in nearly every respect, bringing back some familiar characters from the prequel-era timeline (thank goodness for Michael Fassbender) with not much to do while putting an uninspired Sophie Turner as Jean Grey front and center. She is joined by Jessica Chastain as a one-note shape-shifting alien named Vuk, about whom I didn’t give a flying one. Weak special effects, a rehash story of the series’ third outing and virtually no tension or humor cause this X to mark the spot when this long-running franchise whimpered away from relevance.
The kaijū film genre, marked by fantastical creatures storming world cities, gets epic treatment in Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (B-), the third in a proposed quartet of “Legendary MonsterVerse” films (preceded by 2014’s Godzillaand 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). This movie is wall to wall action around the globe featuring a clash of spectacular Titans – the titular beast, the flying Rodan, the multi-headed King Ghidorah and the exotic Mothra. Grounded in a domestic drama at its core but absolutely unleashed in terms of glorious effects, set pieces and apex predator showdowns, this is as exciting and thrilling as a Hollywood disaster and destruction blockbuster gets. Kyle Chandler sinks his teeth into the monster-hunting leading man role in psychological battle with Vera Farmiga, who harbors a belief that the colossal creatures may help restore the earth from mankind’s foibles. Exploring all the strangest things firsthand, Millie Bobby Brown is solid as their conflicted offspring. Bradley Whitford provides coy comfort in the situation room, and Ken Watanabe steals the show a scientist turned soldier hellbent on maintaining the balance and safety of all living things. There may actually be too much packed into this creature feature as the momentum rages on a bit too long. Sometimes the sheer spectacle crowds out promised characterizations, but this film delivers the goods in terms of action and intrigue.
Bring on the ballet of bombast! Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (B-) delivers more of what fans desire – the stoic Keanu Reeves as the titular retired hit man now with quite a bounty on his head, brutally graphic action sequences and elaborate fights and stunts staged against epic and ultra-cool set pieces. A few Oscar winners and nominees are thrown in the mix – Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne and Angelica Huston chief among them – and none should expect a repeat nomination from this outing. Barry is particularly hit or miss. But for sheer propulsive action and energy, this flick brings the goods. Front-loaded with some of its best sequences including a fight in a library with books as weapons and a more straightforward showdown in an actual weapons store, the film ultimately gets a bit campy with elaborate lairs resembling Bond villain hideaways re-imagined by Max Headroom’s electronica DJ nephew. Following the rules and lore of the assassin underground becomes a bit puzzling, but by the time the travelogue has taken viewers from NYC to Casablanca and back, you realize it’s all just a big canvas for grotesquerie, kung fu and bloodsport. Nothing seems to slow down this earnest and absurd series.
The bar is set low for movies based on video games, and Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu (D+) lurks right below that threshold. Justice Smith is a bit adrift as an insurance agent who lost his estranged father in a mysterious accident near a lab on the outskirts of a utopia where humans and Pokémon (plural!) live mostly in harmony (like humans and toons in Roger Rabbit‘s milieu). Smith’s reluctant hero is joined by the spry voice of Ryan Reynolds as the titular adorable yellow creature at the heart of the story. The film fails to take full advantage of its film noir set-up nor does it add many compelling layers to chase and action sequences, so it basically isn’t interesting, funny or exciting enough to justify all the average special effects bouncing around its screen. Because Pikachu’s dialogue can only be heard by his human friend, there could have been something wry or subversive here, but alas it’s all aimed at a very young audience. And to that end, it doesn’t really set much of a life lesson or warm the heart either. Perhaps there’s a demographic to whom this will have exact appeal, but Letterman and his intrepid detectives didn’t make the case to many new fans with this one.
A fun hybrid of Big and The Goonies, the DC Universe gets a lively dose of life and levity with the introduction of David Sandberg’s Shazam! (B). The film’s teen protagonist is grappling with new powers which cause him to toggle back and forth between awkward adolescence and transforming into a full-fledged adult superhero just as he joins a foster family with a bunch of precocious step-siblings. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are superb and funny as the boy and his adult alter ego, respectively, and the film’s family includes Jack Dylan Graser as a cunning sidekick and Cooper Andrews as a lovable lug of a foster dad. The movie is aimed squarely at a family audience, despite a few early scares courtesy of Mark Strong’s viciously one-note villain and a bunch of beguiling CGI monsters. It’s a touch overlong, but the comedy, action and surprises pile high with fairly consistent success, and there are even a few moments of genuinely moving domestic drama. The movie creates characters for whom the audience can truly cheer in an environment largely well imagined. Expect the origin stories explored here to bring further marvels to DC.
Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.
You may want to cover your eyes and frankly shut down all of your senses for Sandra Bullock’s overhyped dystopian suspense film playing exclusively on Netflix. Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (C) follows Bullock’s heroine who, along with a pair of precious children, embarks on an adventure through the woods and down a river blindfolded to avoid supernatural entities which cause people who lock eyes with them to take their own lives. Bullock and co-star Trevante Rhodes acquit themselves pretty well in the acting department, while a supporting cast including John Malkovich overplay wildly underwritten roles. The action and effects are quite average, and the end result is not worth all the fuss. It’s mostly a wobbly endeavor and a far cry from the similarly themed A Quiet Place, one of 2018’s best movies.