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Josh Reviews Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Despite my having a very negative opinion of most of the recent DC/Warner Brothers films, including the dreadful Suicide Squad (which is where Margot Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn first appeared), I was interested in seeing Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.  I loved that audacious title, I was impressed by the strong mostly-female cast they’d assembled, and I thought the trailers looked promising.  But I didn’t manage to find time to get to a theater during the film’s first few weeks of theatrical release, and then the COVID pandemic rendered all thought of going to a movie theatre an impossibility for me.  I did, though, recently get a chance to watch Birds of Prey on blu-ray, and I was delighted!  I thought the film was terrific fun; a ripping adventure yarn with a pleasingly loose, tongue-in-cheek tone.  This film deserves to be seen by a wider audience!

Birds of Prey picks up Harley Quinn’s story a ways after Suicide Squad, after getting abandoned by the Joker.  At first depressed, Harley begins to see the upside of beginning a new life out from under the Joker’s thumb.  However, she quickly discovers that she also no longer has the protection that being the Joker’s girlfriend afforded her, thus now making her fair game for any criminal or lowlife she has ever pissed off.  Harley’s story soon intersects with that of several other powerful women: G.C.P.D. detective Renee Montoya; Dinah Lance, singer and driver for the crime lord Roman Sionis; young pickpocket Cassandra Cain; and Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, who has made it her life’s mission to hunt down and kill every gangster who was involved with her family’s murder.

Writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan have created a very entertaining and original film.  It’s fantastic to see two women at the helm of this female-focused film, and both Ms. Hodson and Ms. Yan demonstrate their tremendous skill in spades.  I hope they both have long careers ahead of them.  Birds of Prey has a sense of style and tone that is unique among the DC/Warner Brothers films of recent years.  It is the tone that is the most critical, as this is an intense and serious and very adult film that is also a lot of fun and playfully loose.  Many films try and fail to strike that balance, but Ms. Yan and Ms. Hodson make it look easy.

Birds of Prey demonstrates a wonderfully playful attitude throughout, beginning with the funny and irreverent animated opening sequence.  I knew I was in for a fun ride after seeing that opening!  Birds of Prey is structured to bring the audience into Harley Quinn’s loopy and off-kilter … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time in the theater back in 1994 made me a Quentin Tarantino fan for life, and so I have been eagerly anticipating the release of his ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  A new Tarantino film as always a cause for excitement!  I was not disappointed.  I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The film is longer than it needs to be, but I so enjoy Mr. Tarantino’s unique style of dialogue and direction that I would have happily spent many more hours living in the world he (re)created for the film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Hollywood in 1969, in the months and weeks before the murders of Sharon Tate and others by members of the Manson Family.  Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is a character in the film, but the film’s focus is on two fictional characters: aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stunt-man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick became a star as the lead of a Western TV series called Bounty Law, but in the years since the show has ended he’s fallen on hard times, finding it harder and harder to get work.  Cliff has had similar trouble finding work as a stuntman; now he mostly earns his living by driving Rick around and helping him with various errands and chores.

There’s not too much actual plot to the film.  I’m OK with that!  For me, the joy is in luxuriating in the world that Mr. Tarantino has created.  I love spending time with these characters.  Both Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Pitt are fantastic.  Their movie-star wattage is a perfect match for the terrific roles that Mr. Tarantino has written for them.  Like many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with digressions and asides, and I love all of those little rivulets of story so much.  (One of my favorite sequences in the film is a lengthy flashback, while Brad Pitt’s Cliff fixes Rick’s antennae on the roof of his house, about how he got fired from his last stuntman job.)  As I noted above, one could say that the film is longer than it needs to be.  For a movie that’s around two hours and 45 minutes, there’s not a heck of a lot of actual plot/story to be found.  But I don’t care a whit.

The film is very funny.  Mr. Tarantino’s dialogue is, as always, a joy to unravel… and Mr. Tarantino sure knows exactly how to get the timing perfect on a comedic scene.  But there’s also a looming sense of dread hovering over the film, as … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Suicide Squad

Following the disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I found to be overly dour and grim and dull (and, even more problematically, filled with almost nonsensical plotting and paper-thin characters), I thought Suicide Squad looked like a breath of fresh air for the burgeoning DC movie-verse, fun and anarchic.  Sadly, the film has almost all of the exact same problems as Batman v. Superman: the plot makes little sense, the characters are underdeveloped, and the whole thing reeks of desperation to be cool and adult, while failing to be either.  I actually think Batman v. Superman is better than Suicide Squad — something I can’t believe I am writing.  Oy vey!

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Created by John Ostrander in the eighties (actually, recreated, as there was a previous Silver Age version of the concept) (and I was happy to see that Mr. Ostrander got a fun shout-out in the third act of the film), the idea behind Suicide Squad is that government operative Amanda Waller (played here by Viola Davis) has gathered a group of meta-human super-villains and attempts to coerce them into doing good on the government’s behalf as a way to commute their sentences (and avoid getting blown up by the bombs she’s had implanted in their necks).  Here in the film, the DC world has been shaken by the arrival, and then departure, of Superman, which lends context to Amanda Waller’s desperation to have some meta-humans she can control.  Of course, the idea of trying to control these super-powered crazies is probably a bad idea.

I am somewhat shocked that this obscure property has made it to the big screen, so in this I applaud DC/Warners for having the guts to dig this deeply into the wonderful history of DC Comics.  I never really expected to see Harley Quinn in live-action on-screen, let alone Deadshot or Katana.  While I think DC/Warners are shooting themselves in the foot by rushing to create a shared cinematic universe — in slavish imitation of what Marvel Studios has done so well — without taking the time to carefully develop each property individually, which has been Marvel’s (very successful) strategy, I must admit that it’s also sort of cool that this new slate of DC movies are dropping us into a universe fully in motion.  Man of Steel was a new origin story for Superman, but Batman v. Superman presented us with a Batman who had been in operation for decades and already had a Robin killed, and a Wonder Woman who had been around since WWI at least, while also suggesting the existence of many other super-humans (all the other members of what will be the Justice League.)  Here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Big Short

Back in 2010, Adam McKay wrote and directed the film The Other Guys, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.  I found the film to be mediocre, but one of my favorite things in the movie was the end credits, which featured animated graphics presenting many upsetting statistics related to the 2008 financial meltdown.  It felt random and not-at-all-connected to the movie I’d just watched, but on its own that end-credits sequence was terrific and very powerful.

I guess this has been a topic that has been on Mr. McKay’s mind for some-time, because that random end-credits bit has blossomed into his latest film, The Big Short.  This film is a triumph, a movie that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking, bringing to life many of the complicated details behind the financial collapse in 2008.

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Mr. McKay is mostly down as a writer and director of comedies such as the two Anchorman films and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It might at first seem like an unusual move for him to helm a drama about the financial collapse, but as it turns out Mr. McKay is the perfect man for the job.  His comedic sensibilities bring a tremendous amount of wit and life to The Big Short.  Mr McKay fills the film with funny and creative filmmaking choices that keep the film lively and the audience engaged.  Characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience; there are random interludes (such as The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie in a hot tub, definitely a winner) in which random celebrities use different methods/analogies to explain certain aspects of the intricate banking terms and issues being discussed in the film; and lots more.  These varied techniques and approaches give the film a propulsive creative energy and help Mr. McKay make the points he is trying to make.

And make no mistake, Mr. McKay and his team have a lot they want to say.  The Big Short is very funny at times, but this is an angry film that is designed to get its audience angry.  The financial meltdown of 2008 was not, Mr. McKay argues, an unavoidable tragedy, but an event that a) was caused by the greed, short-sightedness, and corruption of many, and b) was in fact predicted by a few lone voices who nobody listened to.  The Big Short tells the story of several of those lone voices in the years and months leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The film’s cast is spectacular.  Ryan Gosling has never been funnier than he is here as the fast-talking, uber-confident trader Jared Venett.  While Adam McKay is a man usually associated with comedies who is dipping his … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street

At seventy-one years old, Martin Scorsese has unleashed upon us a work of towering ambition and accomplishment, with a rabble-rousing energy and anger that far outstrips most films made by filmmakers half his age.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour epic, fiercely entertaining and stomach-churningly upsetting all at the same time.  This is Mr. Scorsese working at the very top of his game, crafting a story that is at once epic in scope and profoundly intimate.  This is a crime saga that stands tall next to Goodfellas and Casino, films that I never thought Mr. Scorsese would be able to equal in the later years of his careeer.  (And yes, like most of the rest of you, I agree that Goodfellas is a stronger film that Casino, but I unabashedly love Casino and find it to be a remarkably under-appreciated masterpiece.)

But whereas Mr. Scorsese’s previous films about the rise and fall of men involved in organized crime always felt, to me, like stories that took place far outside of my personal frame of reference, the genius and power of The Wolf of Wall Street is that Mr. Scorsese has found a crime story that strikes much closer to home, at least for me.  I don’t work on Wall Street, but crime-without-guns seems much closer to the world of my day to day life.  This crime story is mostly populated by men and women who I feel like I could have known.  This particular crime story doesn’t involve bullets and dead bodies, but rather bloodless financial transactions that, nevertheless, affected arguably a far wider number of every-day Americans.  The story is all the more horrifying because of it.

The center of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.  Wen the film opens we see Mr. Belfort at his opulent height, but the film quickly flashes back to several years earlier, to a young Mr. Belfort’s first day on Wall Street.  He catches the eye of a senior man in the firm, Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey).  Hanna takes Belfort out to a booze-filled lunch, and lays out for the young man the fuck-your-clients, earn as much money for yourself as you can principles by which he operates.  We can see Belfort buy in immediately.  (Mr. McConaughey is only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but he is absolutely fantastic, and this lunch scene is astounding.)

Despite his skills, though, young Belfort finds himself out of work after the terrible day on Wall Street in October, 1987, that resulted in the firm that employed him (L.P. Rothschild) shutting its doors.  With no Wall Street firms looking to hire stockbrokers, Belfort finds himself … [continued]