“If you want boys to respect you, show them you’re serious. Shoot something, blow it up!”
The flippant tone of Birds of Prey is its greatest strength, a bright colour palette veering deliberately away from the dark tone of the DCEU with a story told, messily, by Harley Quinn. The script weaves a thin plot around the conceit that she is striking out on her own after years under the Joker’s sway, but for the most part it just strings together a series of acrobatic fight sequences. There is some creative choreography, with a few well-observed moments in the hands of a female director like Harley offering Black Canary a hair-tie during a fight, but it is shot predictably in chaotic quick cuts. We never see the level of audiovisual flair found in Harley’s prison breakout in the The Suicide Squad and, whilst comparing Birds of Prey to a later film may seem unfair, Gunn understood what we need to see and feel to get into the mind of one Harley Quinn, which is almost as important as Margot Robbie’s performance. Birds of Prey tries to do that through its use of voice over and colour palette, but it never quite succeeds.
Whilst it remains unclear the extent to which studio intervention caused the issues in David Ayers’ Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s follow-up has been billed as a soft reboot – in reality, with a number of returning characters it is essentially a direct sequel with a revised (and more consistent) tone. The key ingredient Gunn provides is his skill in writing dysfunctinal group chemistry which proved so successful in Guardians of the Galaxy. What makes The Suicide Squad excel is this in combination with beautiful visual flourishes and creative variation when it comes to the action, choreographed around the characters’ varying levels of power and skill rather than the godlike punchfests that have routinely plagued the DCEU. Viewers should be prepared for ridiculous ultraviolent excess — this is the sort of film where multiple people are literally torn in half — but it is fitting for a group of villains, and Gunn uses it to comment on American foreign policy. As pure entertainment, this concotion produces the best comicbook film in the past few years.
Set in the late 1960s, as Hollywood’s heydey is already drawing to a close, it is easy to see washed-up actor Rick Dalton as a vehicle for Tarantino’s anxiety about his own continuing relevance. The interwoven tapestry of stories combines real and fictional characters, allowing Tarantino to revel in the filmmaking process and insert his characters into classic movies. The introduction of Sharon Tate is intended to cast a shadow over the story and Tarantino deftly fills an extended sequence at the Manson family’s ranch with a sense of unease and dread, but he also makes a conscious decision to assume knowledge on the part of the audience. I suspect Tate’s story plays far better in the USA (where the Manson family murders are deeply ingrained in the public consciousness) than elsewhere in the world. Once Upon A Time‘s alternate reality is telegraphed early when a stuntman played by Brad Pitt bests Bruce Lee in a fight. Some may view this as disrespectful but Tarantino is obviously a fan of Lee and the entire point is the ridiculousness of this outcome. It leaves the audience guessing at how Tarantino will treat Tate’s brutal murder, particularly given Inglourious Basterds‘ loose adherence to historic fact. Although staples like chapter headings are gone, Tarantino still gets in his own way. Multiple foot shots break the immersion, feeling perfunctory and self-indulgent, and — as with The Hateful Eight — the most irritating tool is an out-of-place single-use voiceover, deployed here to summarise the events of a six-month time jump, all of which could have been communicated effectively on screen instead. Ultimately this is as much a languid movie for film lovers as it is for Tarantino fans — his ninth film sits solidly in the middle of his catalogue but, for a director appearing to question his relevance, that is no small feat.
Beneath Terminal‘s very pretty neo-noir exterior, colourfully drenched in neon and sulphur, lies a palpably empty world populated by a handful of shallow characters. Margot Robbie manages to bring vibrant energy to Annie, which is more than the rest of the cast can achieve — Simon Pegg in particular seeming miscast. The perpetual twilight (the film almost demands to be watched late at night) and modern noir setting bring to mind the atmospheric Franklyn, but without its purposive depth. The lack of attempt at world building may be explained by the dreamlike approach to storytelling, repeatedly quoting from Alice in Wonderland as if to suggest that the viewer should accept Terminal as a similar series of scenes that operate by their own internal logic. Perhaps but, as I learned as a child, a dream is only interesting to the dreamer — to everyone else it is an interminable bore.
Tonya Harding is infamous in America as an Olympian figure skater whose rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan ended with the latter having her knee shattered in an attack. The film seeks to present Tonya’s side of the story, with a focus on the sport’s emphasis on image over athleticism (Tonya was the first woman to land a triple-axel in competition but was brash and from a poor background). Considerable focus is placed on the effect of domestic violence, at the hands of her mother (an exceptional supporting turn by Allison Janney) and then her partner. The film’s breezy tone makes for a more enjoyable experience, though arguably weakens its presentation of Tonya’s loneliness, yearning for affection. Given that the truth remains elusive, the film plays with its own unreliable perspective — “I never did this,” Tonya tells the camera, whilst cocking a shotgun and chasing her husband. The result, then, is conjecture but with substance.
“There’s two kinds of people in this world. There’s hammers and there’s nails. You decide which one you want to be.”
Another failed Will Smith vehicle, Focus opens as a slick caper movie with a group of con artists led by Smith and joined by Margot Robbie as a newcomer, both at their charming best. After the opening act, the remainder of the film switches gears to a longer con that lacks any real substance and does not fare nearly as well. It does succeed in keeping its audience guessing and does not quite overstay its welcome. Ultimately Focus is a briefly entertaining diversion if not much more.