THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) – Sanitized CGI Version of Jack London Tale Still Works

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Call-of-the-Wild

While it is a somewhat sanitized and family friendly version of Jack London’s classic novel, and one that substitutes CGI effects for real dogs, THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) nonetheless manages to be a successful heartwarming adventure.

There are two reasons for this success.

First, the screenplay by Michael Green, based on Jack London’s novel, is a good one. In spite of Harrison Ford’s sleep-inducing voice-over narration, the story is told crisply and efficiently, apropos for London’s short novel. There’s no fat on this one which clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes. Best of all it’s consistent with its themes of searching for redemption in the wilderness, and the need for answering one’s ancestral call, in this case, the call of the wild.

The second reason, strangely, is the CGI. I say strange because when the movie opens, it’s apparent from the get-go that Buck, the main character in the story and a dog, is a CGI creation and not a real dog. My first thought, especially since it was very apparent and obvious, was that this was going to work against the movie, give it less realism. And while this is true, the story still works because realism becomes secondary. Let me explain. This story is about Buck, a remarkable animal, and realism matters less because Buck is beyond real. He’s exceptional, larger than life, and as such the effects aren’t a detriment. And so realism becomes less important here than truth, and that is one item the movie does not sacrifice.

All this being said, I still would have preferred a real dog, but I can’t deny that the effects won me over, even as I realized what I was watching was a special effect.

THE CALL OF THE WILD is the story of Buck, a half St. Bernard half Scotch Shepherd, who lives a happy spoiled life with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family. But one night Buck is snatched away, as dogs fetch a good price in this time of the Gold Rush, as sled dogs are needed.

So Buck soon finds himself in the Yukon where he learns to fear the club of man, as he is belted over the head until he learns submission. This one of the areas in the film that is sanitized, as Buck learns to obey quickly, whereas in the novel it was a much more brutal sequence.

Buck becomes part of a sled team delivering the mail, led by two friendly mail carriers Francoise (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy). Pearrault in particular treats the dogs well and talks to them as if they are human. The team is led by a dog called Spitz, but when the dogs begin to respect Buck more, a rivalry develops, and eventually Buck replaces Spitz as the lead dog, in another sequence made family friendly. In the novel, Buck kills Spitz. Here in the movie, he simply beats him down till he shows respect.

After Perrault receives orders to sell his sled dog team, Buck and his fellow dogs are purchased by an inexperienced and cruel man Hal (Dan Stevens). Buck is eventually rescued by John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who nurses Buck back to health, and the two share a life of peace and quiet in the snowy wilderness, even as Buck continually hears the call of the wild beckoning him to seek his destiny.

As I said, I had my doubts about this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD, but it really does work, and I left the theater thoroughly satisfied.

Again, while I would have preferred a real dog in the movie, the CGI effects are done well. The CGI model used in the film was a digital scan of a real dog, and it’s pretty convincing. It’s just not 100 percent convincing, and for me, the biggest surprise was that this didn’t really matter. Buck carries this movie. That’s right. The best character in THE CALL OF  THE WILD is a dog, and in this case, not even a real dog. Buck shares a genuine bond with his fellow dogs and human owners, and it’s this connection that drives this story forward.

And while Buck outshines the humans in this one, he does receive fine support. Harrison Ford, in spite of his one-note-covers-all voice-over narration, is decent and believable as John Thornton. Interestingly enough, Rutger Hauer played John Thornton in the 1997 version of the story, and of course, Ford and Hauer were adversaries in the classic science fiction film BLADE RUNNER (1982).

My favorite human performance in the movie belongs to Omar Sy as Perrault. He was the most interesting character in the film, other than Buck, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with the dogs. I also enjoyed Cara Gee as Francoise.

And Dan Stevens is sufficiently villainous as the main scoundrel in the film, Hal. It’s a small role, though, and Stevens had much more to do in the recent horror movie APOSTLE (2018), where he played the lead, a man who infiltrates a bizarre and deadly cult to find his missing sister. Stevens also played the Beast in Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Director Chris Sanders keeps this one lean and efficient and manages not to lose sight of the dramatic story elements even while keeping this one family friendly.

Purists of Jack London’s novel may shake their heads and grumble, but dog lovers and fans of good storytelling will appreciate this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD which tells Buck’s story with genuine emotion and respect.

The call of the wild may be less savage here, but it remains intrinsic and true.

—END—

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: DUCK SOUP (1933)

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from classic movies.

Up today it’s DUCK SOUP (1933), one of the all-time best Marx Brothers comedies. One can make the argument that the Marx Brothers’ movies were so good you could take the whole film and it would be one giant memorable quote. The dialogue is that good.

Of course, here in 2020, a lot of their humor is dated, some of it sketchy, and not exactly politically correct, but taken for what it is, inane comedy from the 1930s, it’s pretty special.

Here in DUCK SOUP the Marx Brothers spoof politics and war with their tale of two warring countries. You have Groucho as dictator Rufus T. Firefly with all his sharp verbal word play which Groucho was famous for, and Chico as Chicolini, doing his Italian shtick.  And of course in a column like this on quotes, you don’t even touch the humor of Harpo, whose outrageous sight gags never involved dialogue.

So, let’s get to those quotes from DUCK SOUP, screenplay by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Skeekman, and Nat Perrin.

One of the running gags in the movie is Groucho’s interactions with Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale. Dumont starred in several Marx Brothers movies, generally there to be Groucho’s “straight man” and be insulted.

Let’s have a listen:

RUFUS T. FIREFLY (Groucho Marx): Not that I care, but where is your husband?

MRS. TEASDALE: Why, he’s dead.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY:   I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.

MRS. TEASDALE: I was with him to the very end.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: No wonder he passed away.

MRS. TEASDALE: I held him in my arms and kissed him.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

MRS. TEASDALE: He left me his entire fortune.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Is that so? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? I love you.

 

And:

MRS. TEASDALE: We’ve been expecting you. As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the good wishes of every man, woman, and child of Freedonia.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Never mind that stuff. (Taking out a deck of cards.) Take a card.

MRS. TEASDALE: (Takes a card) Card? What will I do with the card?

RUFUS T. FIREFLY:  You can keep it. I’ve got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?

 

A lot of the humor in DUCK SOUP comes at the expense of politics and war.

MINISTER OF FINANCE: Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.

 

And:

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: And now, members of the cabinet… (pounds gavel.) we’ll take up old business.

CABINET MEMBER: I wish to discuss the tariff.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Sit down, that’s new business. No old business? Very well… (Pounds gavel) we’ll take up new business.

CABINET MEMBER: Now, about that tariff…

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Too late, that’s old business already. Sit down.

 

And:

BOB ROLAND: Message from the front, sir.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Oh, I’m sick of messages from the front. Don’t we ever get a message from the side? – What is it?

BOB ROLAND: General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate baking soda and a half a glass of water.

 

One of my favorite Marx Brothers is Chico Marx. His Italian shtick is hilarious, and having grown up in an Italian extended family, no one ever found his humor offensive. It was all in good fun. Here, Chico plays Chicolini.

PROSECUTOR: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.

CHICOLINI: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.

PROSECUTOR: No, I’m talking about taxes – money, dollars!

CHICOLINI: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

 

AMBASSADOR TRENTINO: Now, Chicolini, I want a full detailed report of your investigation.

CHICOLINI: All right, I tell you. Monday we watch-a Firefly’s house, but he no come out. He wasn’t home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game, but we fool him, we no show up. Thursday it was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listen to it over the radio.

 

CHICOLINI: Now I aska you one. What has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in a circus?

PROSECUTOR: That’s irrelevant.

CHICOLINI: Irrelephant? Hey, that’sa that answer. There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.

 

And when Groucho and Chico shared scenes together, all bets are off.

 

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: How would you like a job in the mint?

CHICOLINI: Mint? No, no, I no like a mint. Uh, what other flavor you got?

 

And:

RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot. I implore you, send him back to his father and brothers, who are waiting for him with open arms in the penitentiary. I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.

CHICOLINI: I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.

 

You can’t beat the word play in a Marx Brothers movie, and DUCK SOUP is one of their best, and as I said, a column like this doesn’t give them full justice because Harpo was nonverbal and his character provided nonstop hilarious sight gags throughout. Which is why their comedies were so successful. There was always so much going on.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES and join me again next time when we look at memorable quotes from another classic movie.

As always, thanks for reading!

—-Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEADING LADIES: BROOKE ADAMS

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Brooke Adams in 1978.

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Brooke Adams, who, if you’ve seen the outstanding 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, you’ll definitely remember her performance as one of the contributing factors to it being such a great movie.

The Philip Kaufman directed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) is one of those rare instances where the remake is as good or arguably better than the original. There are many reasons for this. Among them, Kaufman’s direction, a truly unforgettable chilling ending, and a fine ensemble of actors, including Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. I saw this at the movies when I was just 14, and it instantly became a favorite. I also immediately became a fan of Brooke Adams.

Here now is a partial look at Adams’ career, focusing mostly on her genre credits:

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971) – Nurse (uncredited) – Adams’ first appearance on the big screen, an uncredited bit as a nurse, in this tepid horror movie by director Gordon Hessler, featuring Herbert Lom and Jason Robards. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Party Guest (uncredited) – another uncredited bit in the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

SONG OF THE SUCCUBUS (1975) – Olive Deems/Gloria Chambers – plays the lead in this TV movie about a modern-day rock star haunted by the ghost of a Victorian era musician.

MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 (1975) -Vera Franklin – part of an all-star cast in this TV movie about a series of murders on a jumbo jet, featuring Robert Stack, Ralph Bellamy, Sonny Bono, Fernando Lamas, Hugh O’Brian, Walter Pidgeon, and receiving most of the hype at the time, Farrah Fawcett.

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – Rose – stars alongside Peter Cushing and John Carradine in this low-budget thriller about Nazi zombies.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) – Elizabeth Driscoll – my favorite Brooke Adams role. Stars alongside Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy in this superior retelling of the classic Jack Finney story. The best part of Adam’s performance here is that she does fear very well and captures how unsettling it would be to be caught up in such a dire situation as the imminent invasion of the pod people.

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Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, and Jeff Goldblum about to get some bad news on the telephone in one of the many tense moments in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978).

CUBA (1979) – Alexandra Lopez de Pulido- co-stars with Sean Connery in this romantic adventure by director Richard Lester.

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Sean Connery and Brooke Adams in CUBA (1979).

THE DEAD ZONE (1983) – Sarah Bracknell – David Cronenberg’s effective adaptation of Stephen King’s novel stars Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, and Martin Sheen. A good role for Adams, as she plays Sarah, the former girlfriend of Walken’s Johnny Smith. When Johnny awakes from a coma, five years have passed, and Sarah is now married to someone else. Jonny also finds that he now possesses an unusual power. Excellent horror flick!

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Brooke Adams and Christopher Walken in THE DEAD ZONE (1983).

THE STUFF (1985) – Special Guest Star in Stuff Commercial – appearance in Larry Cohen’s campy horror comedy, starring Michael Moriarty.

SNAPSHOTS (2018) – Patty – Adams’ most recent screen credit, in this drama co-starring Piper Laurie.

All told, Brook Adams has 66 screen credits. A lot of these have been on television.

Born on February 8, 1949, Adams is still actively acting. She has been performing on both the big and small screen since 1963, with her first big screen performance happening in 1971. For me, I’ll always remember Adams for her riveting performance as the very frightened Elizabeth Driscoll in the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this edition of LEADING LADIES and join me again next time when we look at the career of another lead actress in horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – Painfully Authentic Depiction of Divorce

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I finally caught up with MARRIAGE STORY (2019) the other night, the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that I had not seen before the Oscars aired last week.

I had heard that its depiction of divorce was depressingly realistic, and after finally having seen it,  I have to agree. MARRIAGE STORY gets the emotions right.

MARRIAGE STORY opens with a voice-over by Charlie (Adam Driver) describing all the reasons why he fell in love with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and these reasons play out in little vignettes shown on-screen. Then it’s Nicole’s turn as she describes why she fell in love with Charlie, again in a voice-over narration with the accompanying vignettes. It turns out these were written by Charlie and Nicole as part of their mediation process, and when Nicole refuses to read out loud what she wrote, she walks out of the mediation meeting, and thus MARRIAGE STORY begins.

Charlie runs a very successful theater group in New York City, he as the director, and Nicole as the lead actress, but Nicole has always longed to return to Los Angeles where her family lives, but Charlie has never been interested in that idea, which has caused Nicole stress over the years. When Nicole accepts a role in a TV pilot, she moves to LA with their eight year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertston), a move that Charlie believes is temporary.

But once there, Nicole hires divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who reminds Nicole that this process is about her getting what she wants and that there is no reason why she has to settle for things she doesn’t want, a la things that Charlie wants. When Charlie arrives in LA, he’s served the divorce papers, and he feels blindsided and betrayed by Nicole as he was under the impression that they were not going to hire lawyers, but Nicole makes it clear that she is unhappy and this is the only way she is going to get what she wants.

Charlie hires a more sensitive attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but after losing continually to Nora’s hardball tactics, he hires a tougher attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) because as he tells Nicole, “I needed my own assh*le.”

As things get uglier and nastier, Nicole and Charlie have to deal with all their emotions even as they realize they don’t really want to hurt each other, in spite of the fact that their marriage is over and their divorce is imminent.

I really liked MARRIAGE STORY, even though watching it was a very uncomfortable experience.  As I said, it gets the emotions right. Through Nicole and Charlie, we witness the pain of watching one’s family and way of life disintegrate before one’s eyes, the frustration of suddenly being adversaries with the very person they’d been in love with, having to keep it together in front of their child, having to deal with their child’s emotions, but as a parent working alone. It makes them say things they simply don’t mean, as the whole ordeal gets inside their heads and changes them, scars them.

All of this is depicted very accurately in MARRIAGE STORY, as well as the sense that even while the divorce is happening, there’s the feeling that Nicole and Charlie don’t really want it to happen. That they love each other and don’t really want to hurt each other, but yet the marriage is over, and so there’s this weird mix of fighting for what you want and need vs. wanting on some level to keep that sense of family together even as the actual family is now separate.

So, kudos to writer/director Noah Baumbach for creating such a genuine portrait of divorce. The screenplay is outstanding.

As is the acting, especially by the two leads. Adam Driver continues to impress me as an actor. Sure, he plays Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS movies, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s been better in other movies, in films like LOGAN LUCKY (2017) and BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). His work here in MARRIAGE STORY is best of all.

Driver makes Charlie a self-absorbed character who is totally at home directing for the stage and perfectly content in that world, but it blinds him to the needs of his wife. He enjoys some powerful scenes, especially with Johansson, as their arguments are fiery and agonizing. Driver’s best moment comes when Charlie unleashes upon Nicole wishing her deader than dead, and then he just collapses, overcome with emotion, before apologizing for what he said.

Scarlett Johansson is just as good. As Nicole, she’s the one who seeks the divorce, but she’s also the one who needs the change, as Charlie is so stuck in his own world nothing she has said or done so far had been able to reach him. When she files for divorce, and Charlie tries to reconcile, in her eyes, it’s already too late. She believes if she goes back it’ll be the same, and she wants more for her life.

Johansson was equally as good as another mother Rosie in JOJO RABBIT (2019), which means 2019 was a pretty darn good year for Johansson.

Laura Dern won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role here as divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Dern is excellent, no question, although I thought both Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and Kathy Bates in RICHARD JEWELL (2019) gave better performances. That’s not to take anything away from Dern, who like Johansson, also enjoyed a stellar 2019. Dern was also in LITTLE WOMEN, as matriarch Marmee March, and she’s excellent in both films. In fact, these two performances are among Dern’s best ever. She’s been making movies for a long time, and so I for one was happy she won the Oscar. And I’m old enough to remember one of her earliest movies, SMOOTH TALK (1985), which I saw at the movies. She impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since.

But the main reason to see MARRIAGE STORY is to watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson performing at the top of their game. As good as the script is, MARRIAGE STORY ultimately works because of Driver and Johansson. They nail their roles, and the emotions that go along with them.

MARRIAGE STORY is not a fun movie, but it is an accurate one. Its depiction of divorce is painfully spot-on.

As such, it’s one of the finest dramas of 2019.

—END—

 

 

 

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019) – Adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft Story Decent Enough

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COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019), filmed in 2019 but just getting its U.S. release here in February 2020, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, and tells a tale of a meteorite which crash-lands on the property of a family’s farm, poisoning the land and water surrounding it, as well as the people, and if that wasn’t enough, completely messes with the space/time continuum.

Sound like a crazy trip? That’s because it is! And if you want further proof of just how trippy this one is, look no further than its cast, which includes Nicholas Cage as the patriarch of the farm family and Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame as their oddball neighbor.

And while the film is a visual tour de force, taken as a whole, it’s far from being a complete package, as its story is uneven at best and the special effects while colorful are often cheap-looking and unimpressive.

In COLOR OUT OF SPACE, Nathan Gardner (Nicholas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), their teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), teen son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and young son Jack (Julian Hilliard) have all moved to a secluded farmhouse in Arkham, Massachusetts to get away from it all, to basically live off the grid and raise alpacas. Everyone seems happy enough, except for rebellious Lavinia, who wants nothing more than to escape her family and the isolated farm.

But when a meteorite crash-lands on their property, things change. For starters, their personalities are affected, especially Nathan’s and Theresa’s who both become more belligerent around their children. Young Jack hears voices coming from the well. Time changes, as it’s dark one moment, light the next, and they find themselves off- kilter, in an almost dreamlike state as their grip on reality begins to shift.

Furthermore, a young man tasked with studying the water tables in the area, Ward (Elliot Knight) determines that there’s something wrong with the water, that it’s poisonous. As things grow more bizarre, strange mutations start taking place, and suddenly in this dreamlike state the Gardners find themselves fighting for their lives.

For the most part, I liked COLOR OUT OF SPACE. It tells a decent enough story, although it doesn’t really push the envelope enough to fully do justice to the source material. The film is unrated, and in spite of some scenes that try to be gory, the film doesn’t ever really get all that disturbing or scary.

Once the meteorite has crashed and is doing its thing, the colors at the farm and throughout the surrounding wilderness are fun to behold, but the actual special effects aren’t so great, and in fact they’re rather cheap looking. What should be some of the more disturbing effects, scenes where beings are mutated together in horrifyingly twisted creatures, come off instead looking like inexpensive cousins to the effects seen way back when in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982). Carpenter’s classic is 38 years old, and the effects in that movie are better than the effects here.

The actual story remains more bizarre than frightening. Screenwriters Scarlett Armaris and Richard Stanley, who also directed, do a good job setting up the mystery but afterwards never go for the jugular.

Nicholas Cage has a field day as papa Nathan Gardner, and for most of the film, he was my favorite part. Madeleine Arthur is also very good as recalcitrant daughter Lavinia.

The rest of the cast is satisfactory. And if young Julian Hilliard with his big eyeglasses looks familiar acting terrified, it’s because he did the same thing with better results on the Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

COLOR OUT OF SPACE works better as a science fiction movie than a horror movie, although it certainly tries hard to be the latter, thanks to some gory scenes by director Richard Stanley. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t really resonate. With their cheap look, they play more as high camp, but other than Nicholas Cage’s performance, the film isn’t all that campy.

I wish COLOR OUT OF SPACE had been better. As it stands, it’s a many-hued science fiction flick with aspirations of being horrific, but it falls slightly short of this goal. Still, if you like this sort of thing, you definitely want to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Nicholas Cage.

At the end of the day COLOR OUT OF SPACE is just decent enough to satisfy its niche audience.

—END—

BIRDS OF PREY (2020) – Harley Quinn Stand-alone Film Hardly Soars

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The best part of DC’s flawed SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)  a few years back was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn.

In short, she stole that movie, which wasn’t hard to do since the film wasn’t all that good, but that’s not to take anything away from her zany sexy performance as the Joker’s deranged girlfriend.

With BIRDS OF PREY (2020) Harley Quinn gets her own movie, and Margot Robbie gets to strut her stuff once again, this time without having to share screen time with those other Suicide Squad members. Now, I love Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, but sadly, while BIRDS OF PREY might be slightly better than SUICIDE SQUAD, it’s not by much, and that’s because in spite of Robbie’s antics, the story is sparse, and the writing which is driven by Harley Quinn’s unhinged voice-over narration, just isn’t sharp or funny enough to make this one worthy of the Robbie’s performance.

In BIRDS OF PREY, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker, or as we find out, he has broken up with her, and she’s not taking it all that well. She also finds out that without the Joker’s protection, her enemies declare open season on trying to kill her. One of these enemies is the powerful Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who at present seems to be running Gotham’s underworld.

Sionis is also after a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who inadvertently swiped a valuable diamond from the pocket of Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). To save her skin, Harley Quinn promises to catch Cassandra and bring her and the diamond back to Sionis. But Quinn is not alone in her quest to find Cassandra. Also on her trail are Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and singer and newly promoted Sionis’ personal driver Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s working with Montoya to try to save Cassandra. Plus Sionis offered a reward for Cassandra’s capture, so there are a plethora of armed and dangerous heavies all competing for the cash prize for bringing Sionis Cassandra’s head on a platter.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this mysterious crossbow killer Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who’s out and about taking down various villains in Gotham.

Eventually, these female warriors all end up together and join forces to protect Cassandra from Sionis’ clutches, calling themselves Birds of Prey.

Which makes BIRDS OF PREY one of those movies that drives me crazy, in that the entire movie seems a set-up for a sequel, which I find frustrating because it wastes the narrative of the present movie. A lot of films do this, and when they do, I always feel cheated.

Of course, I would have minded this less had the script been better. The screenplay by Christina Hodson is admirable for having its badass female characters beat the stuffing out of its badass male characters, although I’m sure this will turn off the same folks who’ve been complaining about other recent Me Too Movement movies featuring strong female leads, films like CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019). I’ve enjoyed these movies, and that’s not the reason I didn’t love BIRDS OF PREY.

The bad girls beat down the bad boys storyline I have no problem with.  It’s the actual plot and the dialogue that I have trouble with. The story is just so-so, and it’s certainly not worthy of the Harley Quinn character. I would have much preferred a plot where she was driving the story, not reacting to Sionis’ threats against her. And the dialogue just isn’t as snappy and edgy as it needs to be.

Margot Robbie is excellent once again as Harley Quinn. That being said, I enjoyed her even more as Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) and as Tonya Harding in I, TONYA (2017), and her performance here doesn’t quite have the same impact as it did when she first played the role in SUICIDE SQUAD. That’s not to take anything away from her, because she’s a terrific actress, and she’s clearly having fun playing Harley Quinn, but she’s not really given the opportunity to do more with the character here other than get more screen time.

Another notable difference this time around is that director Cathy Yan along with screenwriter Christina Hodson tweaked the character here and made her much less of a sex object. Gone are the scenes from SUICIDE SQUAD where Harley Quinn makes men desire her. In their place are simply scenes where Quinn kicks butt and stands on her own as a person. It’s a noticeable tweak, and not a bad one.

As a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I’ve been a fan since her role in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was disappointed that as The Huntress she had very limited screen time. Of all the female leads, Huntress has the least impact, which is too bad, because Winstead is an exceptional actress.

I enjoyed Ella Jay Basco as the teen thief Cassandra Cain, as well as Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary. And while Rosie Perez was fine as Detective Renee Montoya, I thought her scenes with her fellow police officers were some of the most poorly written of the film. The dialogue was cliché and stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the movie.

Ewan McGregor hams it up as villain Roman Sionis, who likes to have the faces of his enemies removed. Yeah, he’s not a nice guy, and his cruelty is somewhat out-of-place n a film that is largely high camp rather than dark superhero drama. I like McCregor as an actor, although he seems to jump back and forth between hits and misses, as seen with last year’s DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) where he was excellent as adult Danny Torrance, and CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where he was meh as Christopher Robin. Here as Roman Sionis, he’s all over the place, but he succeeds in making the villain someone you simply can’t stand.

One of my favorite performances in the movie belongs to Chris Messina who played Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz. Messina made Zsasz one creepy dude.

Director Cathy Yan keeps all the action and chase scenes as high-octane as they need to be, but there’s nothing overly memorable about any of them when all is said and done.

BIRDS OF PREY is an okay standalone film for Harley Quinn, and supposedly, it’s the first of three Quinn films in a proposed trilogy, but it’s hardly a game changer. In other words, after watching it, I’m not pining for the next film in the series. The script simply wasn’t sharp enough for that to happen. That being said, I’d still be happy to see Margot Robbiie play Harley Quinn again. I’d just hope she’d be in a better movie.

BIRDS OF PREY easily gets off the ground, but once airborne, hardly soars.

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PARASITE (2019) – Gripping Tale of Haves and Have-Nots Comedic One Moment, Horrific The Next

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So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi in PARASITE (2019).

Usually when a movie can’t be pigeonholed into one genre, the common refrain is that it can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

Not so with PARASITE (2019), a drama that hails from South Korea that is frequently comedic even as it flirts with undertones of a harsh reality, before it explodes into a full-blown horrific nightmare.

PARASITE has been quietly gaining momentum as a dark horse Best Picture contender, and while I certainly really liked this one, I’m not sure it would have made it into my Top Ten list for Best Movies of 2019.

That being said, I still really liked it.

PARASITE is the story of a destitute family, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), their 20-something daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi). They are all unemployed and live in a decrepit basement dwelling.

But when Ki-woo’s college friend recommends him to take over his private tutoring position while he studies abroad, Ki-woo suddenly finds himself hired to tutor the high school daughter of a very wealthy family and as a result he’s handsomely paid. He then comes up with a scheme to have his sister impersonate an art therapy tutor to help the family’s youngest son, and once she’s hired, now there are two members of Ki-woo’s family working and getting paid amazingly well.

So, why stop there? The comedic plot thickens as the family schemes to get Ki-taek and Chung-sook hired there as well, and so they all find themselves pretending to be people they are not working for the family led by Dong-ik Park (Sun-kyun Lee) and his wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). And while life is good for a while, as the two families interact, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a divide exists between the likes of Ki-taek’s family and Dong-ik’s, who hold the poor in contempt. And so there is this undercurrent of a painful divide which is there and seemingly on the verge of exploding yet never does.

Until something completely unexpected happens which turns everything that has occurred thus far on its head.

THE PARASITE is a gripping, captivating story that is as entertaining as it is disturbing. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along for one moment and then grimacing in horror the next. And the best part is these seemingly opposite emotions really work here, and they work because they are both based on truth. The truth of the matter is in the here and now, we are seeing a greater and greater divide between the haves and the have-nots, and while here the antics of the have-nots to make do can be light and humorous, when push comes to shove, and the realization hits that the have-nots are never going to be the haves, the pleasant comedic balance ends. Things get dark real fast.

THE PARASITE was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, who has made a couple of other highly regarded movies, films like SNOWPIERCER (2013) and THE HOST (2006). The script captures the class differences perfectly, as does the camera, as we see entirely different worlds, the elegant and opulent home of Dong-ik and the shanty poverty-stricken dwelling of Ki-taek, which when there is a flood, not only has to contend with the flood waters, but all the back-up sewage water which erupts through their plumbing.

The cast is excellent, especially Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park as the four members of the Kim family.

The best part of THE PARASITE is that it mixes its emotions perfectly, and while at times it can be jarring to go from light laughter to brutal horror, in terms of the story it’s telling, it makes perfect sense and it works.

Sadly, the divisions between classes continues to grow. The rich seem to grow richer while the poor grow poorer.

The emotions in THE PARASITE capture and reflect this sad reality. In short, in these present conditions, you can only laugh for so long. Eventually you’ll be crying.

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