Over at the FILM HORDE site, my new “Burning Fingers Wrapped in Gold” column is up, featuring a review of the movie THE HUNT. A dark satire about how polarized this country is. It was the last movie I got to see in an actual theater. I miss going to theaters!!
Over at the new site FILM HORDE, you can check out my new review for Leigh Whannell’s reimagining for THE INVISIBLE MAN.
It’s an interesting take on a classic Universal monster, with the emphasis on his victim, played by the great Elisabeth Moss (MAD MEN, THE HANDMAID’S TALE).
Come see what I thought of it and get a brief history of Universal’s “Dark Universe” while you’re at it.
Instead of posting a new movie review on my blog this week, I’m going to recommend you check you a new movie review site called FILM HORDE. It was launched by my friend and fellow writer (and movie fanatic) Nick Cato, and will feature many of the writers who used to write reviews/columns for my old site CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.
My new monthly column there will be called “Burning Fingers Wrapped in Gold,” and the first installment is up now – a review of the 1984 Australian monster movie, RAZORBACK. My article was the first one to be posted on the site, and I’m honored.
I’ll still be posting reviews here weekly (or semi-weekly), as well as writing the monthly column for FILM HORDE.
My friend Jenny Orosel also has a new column up on the site as well, about the early films of director Don Coscarelli, that you should check out as well.
Review by LL Soares
Director Guy Ritchie has had a pretty exciting career so far. I remember seeing his feature film debut, LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) when it first came out, and being blown away by it. He followed that with another very British gangster film called SNATCH (2000), which kept the momentum going. He made a few more gangster films, including REVOLVER (2005) and ROCKNROLLA (2008) before Hollywood beckoned (in this time period, he also made the remake of the Lina Wertmuller film, SWEPT AWAY, 2002, starring his wife at the time, Madonna, which I still haven’t seen). In Hollywood, his career became a rollercoaster of sorts, first with the successful SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, which I quite liked (along with its sequel SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS, 2011) and then on to such films as THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015, a flop starring Armie Hammer, which I didn’t think was completely awful) to KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017, ANOTHER King Arthur movies? Haven’t we had enough of those?) and the live-action version of Disney’s ALADDIN (2019). By the time this last one came out, I was wondering if I’d ever want to see another Guy Ritchie film again.
So when he returned to his roots and made another British gangster film in the spirit of his first films, called THE GENTLEMEN (2020), it caught me quite by surprise. It’s all here, the convoluted, puzzle-like plotting, the way-out characters, the profane and often hilarious dialogue. This R-rated treat is pretty much the exact opposite of something like ALADDIN. And it’s got a pretty amazing cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam (from SONS OF ANARCHY, 2008 – 2014), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from DOWNTON ABBEY), Jeremy Strong (from the current HBO series SUCCESSION), Henry Golden (from CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), and Eddie Marsan (from the shows JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, 2015, and RAY DONOVAN, 2013-2020).
For most of THE GENTLEMEN’s running time, it’s a story being told by Hugh Grant’s sleazy (and terrific) tabloid reporter, Fletcher, to Charlie Hunnam’s gangster, Ray. Fletcher was assigned by his editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig deep in the dirt for an expose of Ray’s boss, Mickey Pearson (McConaughey), and he’s trying to show Ray how much dirt he got and offer Ray a chance to buy the story from him before it gets published. You know, your typical sleazy blackmail plot. But Fletcher is a great story teller, and his story was so many interesting players.
Mickey Pearson, to begin with, is a billionaire American living in England who has cornered the market on marijuana production, by partnering with a lot of Britain’s upper class. But he wants to retire and enjoy life, so he’s considering selling his empire to fellow American, Matthew (Jeremy Strong). But Asian kingpin Dry Eye (Henry Golden) gets wind of it and makes Pearson an offer of his own, which Pearson rejects. Dry Eye takes this personally and plans revenge. His plans also drag his boss, Lord George (Tom Wu) into the growing turmoil.
Meanwhile, Coach (Colin Farrell) finds out that the boys who hang out at his gym (and look up to him) have raided one of Pearson’s secret grow spots, and filmed it, and, when he realizes it was owned by Pearson, goes out of his way to apologize and smooth matters over, before Pearson finds out who it was and kills his “boys.”
There’s also a storyline about a rich girl who’s become a junkie, and Pearson sending his right-hand man Ray to go bring her back to her family, which results in a death that gets the notice of some Russian gangsters. And Dry Eye’s plans also involve Pearson’s wife, the hard-as-steel Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all-women garage for rich people’s cars.
There are a lot of balls being juggled here, and Ritchie does a great job keeping them moving at all times. The script is smart and kinetic, the performances dead on (McConaughey is the eptiome of cool here, Grant seems to really enjoy being a blackmailing sleazebag, and Farrell is completely earnest as he tries to right some wrongs, but frankly everyone here is terrific). Ritchie wrote the screenplay (based on a “story by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies”) as well.
It’s also got a soundtrack by Christopher Benstead, along with classic songs by Cream, Roxy Music, Can, and The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” which takes us out to the end credits.
THE GENTLEMEN isn’t going to appeal to everyone. The foul language is non-stop and there’s gonna be some violence (of course), but I found it an instance of Guy Ritchie re-establishing his cred as the modern King of British Gangster Flicks. No one has taken his crown yet, and he’s still using it.
The crazy twists and turns of the plot, the sometimes over-the-top characters and their equally over-the-top dialogue, all add up to one hell of an entertaining movie. And if you’re a long-time fan of Ritchie’s early films, like I am, you’re going to be even more excited about this one.
It’s a terrific antidote to Hollywood Blockbuster fare like ALADDIN, that’s for sure.
I give THE GENTLEMEN ~ three and a half knives.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives THE GENTLEMEN ~ 3 ½ knives!
REVIEW BY LL SOARES
(NOTE: As I write this, they’ve changed the name of this movie to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY, in the hope of boosting its box office appeal after a first week that was a little short of expectations.)
I wasn’t a big fan of SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I was a fan of Margot Robbie’s turn as anti-heroine Harley Quinn. So when I heard she was coming back in a new BIRDS OF PREY movie, I was happy that more Harley was on the way, but my biggest question was “Why Birds of Prey?” Why not just a solo Harley movie?
I found myself wondering the same thing watching the BIRDS OF PREY movie. Robbie is terrific again as Harley, and since she is also the narrator of our story, there’s lots of her onscreen (a lot more than in SUICIDE SQUAD). So that made me happy. But everything else in the movie is just…mediocre superhero stuff that could have been better written and more compelling.
The movie begins with Harley on her own now that she and the Joker (we don’t see the Joker, but then again, we don’t have to, this ain’t his movie) have broken up for good (quick recap: Harley was originally a psychiatrist who tried to analyze the Joker, and instead they fell in love and she became his accomplice in crime), and she suddenly realizes that the reason she was able to get away with so much insane behavior in the past was because she had the Joker’s protection. Now that they’ve broken up, that’s no longer the case, and now everyone who has a gripe against Harley is free to wipe her off the face of the earth. Except, she’s not going that easily.
Instead, she buys a pet hyena (named Bruce after “that hunky billionaire guy”), and blows up a chemical plant that was important when Harley and “Mistah J” were together. Then she sits back in her apartment and plans her next move.
Oh, and there’s a kinda psychotic guy named Roman Sionis, aka The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting,” 1996, and “Doctor Sleep,” 2019) who wants to be the new crime kingpin of Gotham City, and wants Harley dead.
But these plans will lead to her becoming involved with the other “Birds of Prey,” superhero women who also have their own issues. Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell, from the shows “Friday Night Lights,” from 2009 – 2011, and “True Blood,” 2013-2014) is a lounge singer in the club Sionis owns, but moonlights as a butt-kicking vigilante who, when she needs it, has a voice that can actually break glass and send bad guys flying; Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress (Mary Elisabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” 2010 and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” 2016), a gangster’s daughter who is out for revenge against the rival mob that killed her family, with some martial arts skills and a crossbow; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump,” 1992, and “Fearless,” 1993), a tough cop who just know is going to get kicked off the force at some point for taking matters into her own hands; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who I guess is a future Batgirl in the comics, but here is just a young pickpocket who ends up stealing a diamond that everyone wants, especially Black Mask, who is willing to kill for it.
For some reason, watching this movie kept reminding me of DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Both are R-rated films about anti-heroes who like to curse a lot and who have very crazy personalities. Also, both DEADPOOL 2 and BIRDS OF PREY hinged somewhat on the anti-hero having to protect a kid who the bad guys want to eliminate. I don’t know why these kid storylines are so appealing. To make the unhinged heroes seem more human? But it totally negates the point of the R-rating, which is to NOT HAVE TO BE A FAMILY-FRIENDLY MOVIE. In both cases the kids are annoying, badly written, and among the blandest characters in their movies. In both cases, the kids should have been jettisoned and replaced with A BETTER SCRIPT.
So that’s it in a nutshell. See BIRDS OF PREY for Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was a genius to latch on to this very popular character, and I’m sure she’s got a bright future. She’s great, and we’ll be seeing more of her. But the plot and the other characters (for the most part) are pretty much the same old same old, and there’s not a lot else here to recommend it. McGregor seems to be having fun as Black Mask, and he’s entertaining enough as a bad guy, but he seems a bit restrained at times (he doesn’t go all the way with the crazy persona, which is why he could never replace the Joker). Chris Messina (of the show “The Mindy Project,” 2012- 2017, and the HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects,” 2018), is good as Black Mask’s sadistic henchman, Victor Zsasz, although it would have been more interesting if he had some kind of powers/alter ego as well. Huntress isn’t very well developed, but there is some nice banter between her (she’s so serious!) and the snarkier Harley. The other characters range from bland (Black Canary, Montoya) to just unnecessary (the kid, but we’ve already covered that), which is too bad because I like Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez – their characters just aren’t fleshed out enough to be interesting.
Oh, and I wish there had been more of the CGI hyena.
It’s directed well by Cathy Yan, whose previous film was 2018’s DEAD PIGS, with a script by Christina Hodson (who also wrote “Bumblebee,” 2018, and the upcoming film version of “The Flash, 2022), that handles Harley well, but could have had a much better story for her to appear in.
I give it three knives, mostly for Robbie’s performance. Again, whether you like this movie or not will depend on how much you like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Let’s hope her next adventure is a much more dynamic (and insane) one, a movie that reflects the character and doesn’t restrain her.
Oh, and she doesn’t need to be part of a team anymore, dammit! Robbie as Harley is already scheduled to appear next in the rebooted SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), as well as an upcoming Joker/Harley Quinn project and GOTHAM CITY SIRENS (which sounds kinda like BIRDS OF PREY). How about a plain old HARLEY QUINN solo flick? Why is that so hard for Hollywood to get its head around?
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives BIRDS OF PREY ~ 3 KNIVES!
Review by LL Soares
Growing up, I was never a big fan of war movies, but there are obvious standouts. Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) come to mind. Which I realize now, looking at them, are all about the war in Vietnam (I’d also add Michael Cimino’s excellent THE DEER HUNTER, 1978, to that list). Kubrick’s earlier war movies, PATHS OF GLORY (1957, set during WWI) and DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964, and set in WWIII?) are also favorites, as are Samuel Fuller flicks like THE STEEL HELMET (1951), and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). But there’s a point, with many war films, where I kind of lose interest. I was half-way through Christopher Nolan’s well-made DUNKIRK (2017) when this happened. I’m not sure why.
1917 sounded intriguing. Partly because it’s nominated for this year’s Oscars, and because it’s directed by Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999, ROAD TO PERDITION, 2002, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, SKYFALL, 2012), who is a pretty reliable filmmaker (he wrote the script for 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also worked on Mendes’s terrific Showtime TV series, PENNY DREADFUL, 2014-2016). Also because it involves World War I. We think we know a lot about World War II, the Vietnam War, and even the current wars going on in the Middle East, because they have been portrayed in so many films. Such isn’t the case for WWI, which seems under-represented. The motivations and goals of the war are murky. Just what was gained by it? The style of warfare was messy and arduous: those awful trenches and low-tech slaughter. For most people, it’s hard to understand why it happened at all.
Mendes’ 1917 doesn’t really explain much of the whys (mostly treaties where countries agreed to go to war if their allies did, resulting in a complete shitshow), but it does give us a feel for what it was like for young, undertrained soldiers who fought in the war. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacCay) are chosen for what just might be a suicide mission. A regiment of British soldiers are about to attack Germans who appear to have fled their post, but, thanks to aerial photography, it’s revealed to be a trap. But there’s no way to communicate with the regiment to warn them. So the two soldiers have to get to them before they are slaughtered. Oh, and the regiment includes Schofield’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden).
Once they are given their mission, the two young men then embark on a perilous journey, shot as an intense, non-stop barrage, filmed in such a way to look like a series of long takes where the camera follows them without breaks (until we reach a few points where the film fades to black before starting all over again). The cinematography (by Roger Deakins, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, SICARIO, 2015, and numerous films by the Coen Brothers and Mendes) is astounding and often breath-taking, and clearly Oscar-worthy. The soundtrack by Thomas Newman is also very effective, but not in the overly manipulative way that some Hollywood blockbusters use music.
That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, as we follow Blake and Schofield through a man-made hell. The film is very fast paced, and often heart-wrenching, such as a scene where an act of empathy is rewarded with violence, reducing the two-man messenger team to one.
Will the message be delivered in time to save thousands of lives? Will the final messenger survive to deliver it? For those questions, you’ll have to see 1917 for yourself. But you’ll find it a powerful cinematic experience.
I give 1917 ~ four knives.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives 1917 ~~ 4 knives!
REVIEW BY LL SOARES
Director Taika Waititi is definitely having a moment. I think I first heard of him when his first feature came out, EAGLE VS. SHARK (2007), but what made that movie stick out for me was that it starred Jemaine Clement of the comedy series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Clement, along with Bret McKenzie, played New Zealand musicians trying to find their place in New York on FLIGHT, which was on HBO from 2007 – 2009. Waititi, a fellow New Zealander, even directed a few episodes of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Waititi’s other films include WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), a hilarious documentary-style film about vampires that was spun off into a series for FX, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and the movie that made him a household name, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017).
JOJO RABBIT is his first film after RAGNAROK, and he goes from a Marvel blockbuster to a smaller, more personal film (like the ones that made up most of his career so far). Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JOJO, based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens. I have to admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to see it when it first came out. I’m not sure why. Maybe the idea of a comedy about a little boy whose imaginary friend is a silly version of Adolf Hitler put me off. It sounded like something similar to Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997), a comedy of sorts about a father and son in the middle of the Holocaust, that was controversial at the time (despite that, Benigni won an Oscar for Best Actor), that I still have mixed feelings about. I guess I was put off by the chance that JOJO RABBIT could be a “cutesy” take on similar material. But some friends who really liked this movie, and that fact that it has been nominated for six Oscars, convinced me to give it a chance.
Finally seeing JOJO RABBIT, I feel less ambiguous about it. It’s definitely a better film than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, and it works at what it’s going for. A lot of this has to do with the performances. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is pretty terrific as Jojo, a young, awkward boy in Hitler’s Germany. His performance works, because he’s truly earnest in the role. Growing up in German society at the time, it makes sense that Hitler would be Jojo’s hero, mostly since he wants so desperately to belong somewhere.
JoJo’s is raised by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, currently the Black Widow in the Marvel movies, do I really need to say more?), while his father has been away for awhile (JoJo is told he is a solider in the war). Johansson does a great job as Rosie, because she feels like a well-rounded heroine. In another movie, she would have been more subdued and overly serious, but here she has something of a mischievous streak in her, that often rises to the surface. She does not seem particularly cowed by the hostile environment around her, and she seems like she would be a fun mom, despite the world she’s trapped in.
JoJo’s best friend is another awkward boy, the overweight and kind Yorki (Archie Yates), and when the movie opens, JoJo and Yorki are going off to a kind of summer camp for Hitler Youth, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, also in MOON, 2009 and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017), an officer who was demoted for some blunders and who is now forced to get children ready to become the soldiers of tomorrow. Klenzendorf clearly resents that his career has taken this particular turn, and doesn’t always take his job seriously. His second-in-command, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, also in PITCH PERFECT, 2012, and currently in CATS) is much more gung-ho about it all.
And then we have Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, also in LEAVE NO TRACE, 2018, and THE KING, 2019), an teenage Jewish girl who is hiding in JoJo’s house (his mother is protecting her from the Nazis). JoJo stumbles upon her by accident, and is first afraid of her (especially after all the anti-Semitic bullshit that’s been drilled into him), and contemplates turning her in to the authorities, but slowly, they becomes friends, and he even starts to falls in love with her.
Other standout characters include Stephen Merchant (who was a co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the original British version of THE OFFICE, as well as acting in it. He’s also wrote and directed the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, 2019) as Deertz, the very creepy head of the secret police, who come snooping around JoJo’s house; and director Waititi, of course, as JoJo’s imaginary friend, Hitler, who is played broadly as a buffoon who alternates between being JoJo’s friend, and a childish bully who tries to get him to tote the party line. He’s actually completely child-like, which makes sense, since he’s the creation of a child.
The real heart of the film is the relationship between JoJo and Elsa, and how she gets him to realize that what’s right and wrong isn’t always what the people in power tell us it is. The fact that there is humor along the way just adds to the humanity of it all.
JOJO RABBIT was a much better film than I was expecting, and by the end it had won me over. It’s a strong film, and I left the theater feeling glad that I had given it a chance and finally seen it. You should see it, too.
I give JOJO RABBIT a score of four knives.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives JOJO RABBIT ~ 4 knives.