‘Birds of Prey’ Just Lets Harley Quinn Do Whatever the Hell She Wants

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

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

Director: Cathy Yan

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for So Many Broken Bones and Direct Bullet Hits

Release Date: February 7, 2020

The full title of Birds of Prey is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but a better moniker would have been Harley Queen (and also the Birds of Prey [Sort Of] Form by the End). I’ve never really known the titular psychologist to be a member of any of the former iterations of this female superteam, though to all you DC devotees out there, feel free to let me know if I’ve been missing out on anything important in the comics. But regardless of how the source material goes, Margot Robbie’s version of Harley is never fully committed to being a Bird of Prey. But while the emphasis in the title may be misplaced, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is bad. What it does mean is that director Cathy Yan and her ensemble are willing to do whatever the hell they want, for better and worse.

It starts out promisingly and invigoratingly enough, as Harley tells us her story in John Kricfalusi-style animated form from nun-run orphanage to PhD to the Clown Prince of Crime’s arm candy to unpredictable free agent. This is dynamite context-establishing in the vein of Into the Spider-Verse, but the pace of the rest of the film can’t quite keep up. The plot is simple enough to keep track of, as a diverse crew of vigilantes, detectives, and criminals start swarming around a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who has swallowed a diamond that’s worth millions. Time frequently gets rewound to fill us in on backstory and to keep us on our toes, but in the end, it’s all just Gotham’s most relatively mentally well-adjusted criminals getting annoyed at each other.

The violence is shocking and gleeful, but also discordant against the neon-bubblegum aesthetic. It would be a mistake to think that Harley is so sweet that she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but it is never clear how she learned to readily break so many legs with such elan. That technique sums up Birds of Prey as a whole. It keeps hitting you in so many directions while simultaneously blowing up everything in sight and cackling like a hyena (much like the one Harley keeps as a pet). Harley is chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and/or chaotic evil – whatever the situation calls for. She may not be anything more than an adjunct Bird of Prey, but the full-time Birds are happy to join her gig for however long she’ll have them. I’m glad these ladies are having fun, though I would have appreciated some more discipline in the storytelling momentum.

Birds of Prey is Recommended If You Like: The DCEU’s recent one-off vibe and you give a lot of leeway for uniqueness

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Perfect Egg Sandwiches

The Fascinatingly Conflicted ‘Bombshell’ Documents the Downfall of Roger Ailes

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CREDIT: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Rob Delaney, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell

Director: Jay Roach

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Powerful Men Behaving Badly

Release Date: December 13, 2019 (Limited)/Expands December 20, 2019

Most of the audience who will see Bombshell are probably not regular Fox News viewers. Although I don’t want to assume anything too definitively. Maybe there are actually some people who have the mental capacity to watch both a notoriously conservative news network and a movie that is fundamentally critical about it. Bombshell makes a similar argument against rushing to judgment when being critical seems like the most obvious correct approach to take, especially in one key scene when a woman confronts Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) in a grocery store, and Carlson shoots back about the virtue of treating with respect the people you disagree with. That could easily be a shallow bromide, but when you consider what Carlson is going through, it has unexpected resonance.

What Carlson is going through is a fight against the systematic misogyny at Fox News, a workplace whose initiation for its female employees apparently includes a signature piece of harassment from founder Roger Ailes (a gluttonously made-up John Lithgow). After Carlson is let go from the network in 2016, she files a lawsuit alleging harassment against Ailes, prompting the other women at Fox News to consider if they will support her. Many of them are reflexively Team Roger, but a few of them actually have a crisis of conscience, especially Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and a fictional character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).

The filmmaking trick here is generating empathy, which is generally pretty easy to do for people who have clearly been harassed and abused. But matters are complicated by the fact that these women so resolutely insist that they’re not feminists as they come to terms with speaking out against the misogyny they’ve endured. I certainly believe it is possible to extend humanity to someone you deeply disagree with, but the struggle is even deeper than that. Even if these women leave and renounce their employer, they can’t ever escape the mark of having once worked at Fox News, so far removed is the network from the rest of the media landscape. It’s a sort of original sin that traps them in an infinite labyrinth. For a film that could have so easily been straightforward in many ways, I appreciate the complexity at its heart.

Bombshell is Recommended If You Like: Feeling disgusted and empathetic at the same time

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lawsuits

Super Chill Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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CREDIT: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment

A movie that presents an alternative history can be cathartic, and there may be no better example of that than Hitler biting it at the theater in Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino goes back to that well once more with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by considering: in 1969, a pregnant Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family, but what if things had gone a little differently? It must be said, though, that while going back and getting rid of Hitler as soon as possible is a fantasy harbored by many, I don’t think it’s as widely-held a wish that Tate and her baby had been spared. Since the relatability factor isn’t as built-in, Tarantino lets us see Margot Robbie as Tate just living her life and finding the joy in being a movie star, ultimately giving this what-if scenario enough oomph. And on a pure cinematic level, the climactic showdown with Charles Manson’s associates just ramps up the preposterousness factor to an irresistible degree.

Beyond that wild what-if, I found Once Upon a Time most satisfying in the comfy friendship between struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his steady stunt double Cliff Booth (Mr. Brad Pitt). After a busy day on a Hollywood set, a typical night for them consists of pizza and beer at Rick’s house. That sounds like an ideal evening, if you ask me. There are a lot of kooky characters and psychological pitfalls in Hollyweird, and sometimes, especially in 1969, there is also real mortal danger. So the melancholy-but-resilient mood between Rick and Cliff in the face of all that is by contrast delightfully optimistic and downright inspiring.

I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 40 Job Securities out of 50 Flamethrowers.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Ponders So Many Questions About Who Belongs on the Throne

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CREDIT: CREDIT: Liam Daniel/Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R for A Surprisingly Horny Approach to the Material and the Violent Retribution That Results

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

If you’re an anglophile who loves tracking all historical matters of royal succession, then you ought to add Mary Queen of Scots to your to-watch list. But if you’re more ambivalent on the subject, this film is likely to instead get you frustrated and shout at the 16th century to move ahead hundreds of years when questions of leadership have less to do with the intricacies of bloodlines. Of course, 21st century politics has its own problems, but Mary Queen of Scots feels obsessed with the minutiae of what was specific to a bygone era. There is some intriguing conflict to be had, as Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) both apparently have legitimate claims to the English throne. The internal psychological drama and external tension of impatient courts and citizenry are present, but the same points keep getting pounded over and over.

Part of the problem is the film’s lopsided structure. It makes sense that the title is what it is and not “Mary & Elizabeth,” as this is at least two-thirds Mary’s story, if not more. Perhaps there is an element of correcting the historical record, or the cinematic historical world, as Elizabeth’s story has hitherto been told more often than Mary’s. But if that’s the case, then you might as well go whole hog into Mary’s realm and render Elizabeth more or less heard but not seen. As it stands, though, it makes me wonder, “Why can’t they both be queen?” Alas, for the sake of the narrative (and historical accuracy), that’s probably too pat and conflict-free. But it’s almost all worth it for the scene when Mary and Elizabeth finally meet in person. Ridiculous measures are taken to keep this meeting “secret,” thus fulfilling a promise to really examine the nonsense inherent to this state of affairs. It’s all silly, and should be treated as such, instead of resorting to beheadings.

Mary Queen of Scots is Recommended If You Like: Any and all royal British period piece

Grade: 3 out of 5 Heirs

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Fun Enough for the Kiddos, But It’s Also Kind of Insane

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Matt Lucas, Sia, Sam Neill

Director: Will Gluck

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG for Cartoonish, But Quite Dangerous, Violence

Release Date: February 9, 2018

For the most part, Peter Rabbit is just another trifling kids movie with CG-animated animals. It is not the worst of the menagerie, though it is far from the best. But like many movies of this ilk, it also raises some weird metaphysical conundrums that I do not think it ever planned on grappling with but that it cannot avoid entirely. When you have anthropomorphic animals interacting with humans, especially when those humans are played by live-action actors, you have to decide how much the humans can recognize the critters’ extraordinary abilities. When the beasts talk to each other, does it just sound like animal noises to people? Or can they hear it perfectly, thus forcing the animals to be discreet? Or maybe there is only Dr. Dolittle-type, going mad over the loneliness of his interspecies communication powers.

In this case, Peter (James Corden), his triplet sisters Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and their cousin Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas) are quite sneaky, and as their schemes become more and more elaborate, there is no reason to pretend that they are not fully intelligent creatures. The confirmation that they can in fact talk to humans is a rather sloppy reveal, as it begs the question: how have they hidden this secret for so long? Regardless of what mysterious machinations they have pulled off, the narrative requires that they spill the truth, considering that Peter is responsible for extensive property damage, and furthermore, he wants to apologize to Bea (Rose Byrne), the human that he loves, and make peace with Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), the human that he has been torturing. This all makes for a resolution that is sweet but with disturbing subtext.

But beyond that, this is a fairly typical entry for this genre, as typified by its soundtrack of the pop hits of the past twenty years. Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” Basement Jaxx’s “Do Your Thing,” and Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” will keep the kids bouncing in their chairs without challenging their soundscapes. Lady Bird can take note that Peter’s use of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” is not similarly profound. Elsewhere, the film’s raison d’être is excessively painful physical gags, including a truly worrying number of electrocutions (this is nowhere near as gentle as Beatrix Potter’s source material). There is a rake gag that I must admit I chuckled at, though I am concerned that the target audience will not realize how heavily indebted it is to The Simpsons. And that is indicative of the whole: a satisfying diversion, but with some worrisome implications.

Peter Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: MouseHunt, Dr. Dolittle, the Pop Dance Hits of Today!

Grade: 3 out of 5 Winking Rabbits

This Is a Movie Review: ‘I, Tonya,’ You, Enthralled Audience

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CREDIT: Neon

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Canavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: R for Rinkside Potty Mouth and Redneck-Style Violence

Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)

Every story needs a villain, but that’s not always how life works. Even when somebody gets clubbed in the knee leading up to the Olympics, separating the good guys from the bad guys is not always so clear-cut. This is all to say, Tonya Harding has lived a very colorful life, and some pretty illuminating details often get left out in the telling, so she deserves for us to hear her out. It would help, though, if all the parties involved could actually agree on what happened. Nevertheless, I, Tonya, the spirited biopic pieced together by director Craig Gillespie is a record of fantastically entertaining recent tabloid history that is can’t-look-away tawdry but also fair-minded and humanizing.

Harding is one of the all-time greats in American figure skating, but her reputation has forever been marked by the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics. In the popular imagination (and in a gleefully sadistic fantasy scene in the film), Harding was the assailant herself, but it was actually some guy hired by her ex-husband and her bodyguard, and it is questionable how much she ever knew about it in the first place. All of I, Tonya is building up to “The Incident,” but it takes up a relatively small portion of the runtime. After all, Harding’s life was enough of a whirlwind before then for her to already be the wild child in the public eye.

Betting that his big hook is conflicting testimonies and fluffing of image, Gillespie frames the film as a mockumentary consisting of interviews with the principal actors in character, disputing the accounts of the others as they see fit. This is a recipe for raucous storytelling, as every character is oozing with personality to spare. Margot Robbie is dangerously feisty and undeniably winning as she absolutely gives Tonya a chance to redeem herself and just let her voice be heard. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), accompanied with a parrot on her shoulder (credited as “LaVona’s Sixth Husband”), is a piece of work, egging her daughter on with profanity-laced tirades and motivational negging. Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) has mellowed a bit in the present day, but his fiery, mustachioed presence of yore gets a lot of mileage. And an unnamed producer (Bobby Canavale) of the ’90s tabloid news show Hard Copy fills in the blanks with maximum slickness. Not interviewed, but looming large, is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff’s close friend and Tonya’s supposed bodyguard, who earns the biggest laughs of the film, occasionally by just repeating verbatim some of Eckhardt’s most ridiculous claims (like how he is an expert in counterterrorism).

According to Tonya’s telling, there is one big constant: nothing is ever her fault. And certainly she has been a major victim, suffering at the hands of an abusive mother, an abusive husband, and a father who left her. Plus, there is the figure skating establishment that never accepted her, that would never hold up a white trash girl who performed to ZZ Top as their crown jewel. But for all the ways she has been wronged, it is so clear that she needs to shoulder some responsibility herself (as does anyone who wants to have peace). Yes, her ex beat her up, but she also pulled a shotgun on him (though she disputes that part). And sure, the stuffy figure skating establishment probably never gave her a fair chance, but she was intimidating and probably scared a few judges away from reasonability. Ultimately, Tonya implicates everyone watching in creating the monster she has come to be. To which I say: I don’t think you’re a monster! If Margot Robbie has portrayed you accurately, then I like you, Tonya! Chances are I won’t be the only one, as we all get to see the human within this crazy delicious mess.

I, Tonya is Recommended If You Like: The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Tyson, Thelma & Louise

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Triple Axels

SNL Review October 1, 2016: Margot Robbie/The Weeknd

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SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Margot Robbie" Episode 1705 -- Pictured: (l-r) Colin Jost, Michael Che, and Cecily Strong as Cathy Ann during Weekend Update on October 1, 2016 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-it-margot-robbiethe-weeknd/

Presidential Debate – B

Margot Robbie’s Monologue – B-

Action 9 News – B

The Librarian – B-

Family Feud: Political Edition – B+

The Weeknd performs “Starboy” – B-

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B+
Cathy Anne (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+
David Ortiz – C+

The Hunch Bunch – C-

Melania Moments – B

New York Film Festival Women’s Roundtable – C

The Weeknd performs “False Alarm” – B+

Mr. Robot – C