Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

The follow-up to 2016’s Suicide Squad and the eighth installment in the DC Extended Universe comic book movie franchise, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a visually dazzling and over-the-top violent anti-hero comic book film that is definitely one of the better recent DC adaptations as a result of the terrifically zany performance given by Margot Robbie and the new and creative approach to the story of Harley Quinn. Taking place sometime after the events of Suicide Squad, we first meet the nihilistic freewheeling Harley Quinn, played by Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, devastated by her recent breakup with the Joker and decides to become a vigilante heroine by herself. She causes mayhem throughout Gotham City and eventually finds herself pitted against the vicious criminal kingpin Roman Sionis also known as Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor, who is searching for a missing diamond previously owned by a mob family that has secrets worth millions. As narrated by Harley in very colorful ways, the movie introduces us to other strong female anti-hero characters that will later band together and be known as the Birds of Prey. They include Dinah Lance also known as Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who is forced to be Sionis’ driver; Helena Bertinelli also known as Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who wants to avenge her mob family’s murders by killing those responsible; and Detective Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez, who is belittled in the Gotham City Police Department and is pursuing Sionis. The flamboyantly dressed and tattooed Harley finds herself protecting a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco, from Sionis and his sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina, because the orphan Cassandra is in possession of the extremely valuable diamond. The acclaimed filmmaker is able to craft a wholly unique cinematic experience full of brightly colored and frenetic action sequences that are not for the faint of heart and infuse the rather bizarro movie with gallows humor. Overall, I found it to be a very entertaining and eccentric comic book movie that excels by pushing the envelope led by Margot Robbie’s extremely charismatic and wacky performance as the ultimate anti-hero Harley Quinn.

Les Misérables

Directed by French filmmaker and son of Malian immigrants Ladj Ly and nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film, Les Misérables is a riveting look at the gritty slums surrounding Paris that powerfully presents the systemic issues causing friction between the immigrant populace and the mostly white French-born police officers. To underscore the social and political injustice that are the underlying issues of the film, the filmmaker cleverly decides to name the movie after the famous Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables that chronicles the social ills of 19th century France and setting the story in the predominantly impoverished French commune east of Paris named Montfermeil in which part of the 1862 book took place. The fairly simple plot follows the police officer Stéphane Ruiz, played by Damien Bonnard, who has just transferred into the SCU’s anti-crime police brigade and is starting his first day with the corrupt white squad leader Chris, played by Alexis Manenti, and his longtime black partner Gwada, played by Djibril Zonga. We witness the xenophobic and ruthless Chris alongside his complacent partner on a relatively normal day terrorizing the slum neighborhood, all to the shock to Ruiz who has worked his entire policing career in a relatively peaceful French town. Eventually, things go out of control and a young black kid named Issa is inadvertently injured by Gwada during a confrontation in which the kid is accused of stealing a lion cub from a circus led by the violent Zorro. Eager to make sure there is no evidence of the attack against the juveniles, Chris and Gwada with the help of the begrudging Ruiz go to extreme lengths to finding a boy who recorded the whole episode on his aerial drone. The film vividly depicts the brutality of the small group of officers, especially the strikingly immoral leader Chris, against kids who act out criminally the result of their dire circumstances living in poverty and surrounded by crime in the slums. This one particular incident shown taking its course over the movie is designed to depict just one example of the serious problems plaguing the predominantly immigrant communities of suburban Paris and the degree to which justice is practically non-existent for its impoverished residents due to political indifference and police corruption. Overall, I found it to be a sobering dramatic film that effectively visualizes the social and political problems that have beset societies since the beginning of time, especially for the unprivileged, while also exploring the very real current events taking place in France, including the recent yellow vests protest movement and the simmering animosity between migrants and the native French.

The Gentlemen

Directed by Guy Ritchie best known for such comedy crime films as 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch, The Gentlemen is, for the most part, an entertaining and fast-paced gangster comedy set in London that effectively returns back to what made Guy Ritchie such a unique and brash filmmaker. The story, which can be sometimes hard to follow because of the fast-talking dialogue and alternate timelines, revolves around the criminal exploits of an American marijuana kingpin named Mickey Pearson, played terrifically by Matthew McConaughey, who is trying to sell his massive illicit cannabis empire in Great Britain. In a rather creative twist, a majority of Pearson’s story is told by Fletcher, played by the perfectly cast Hugh Grant, who is a shady private investigator hired by a British tabloid edited by the vindictive Big Dave, played by Eddie Marsan. Marked by amusing banter and bravado, the greedy Fletcher recounts the events over the course of an evening at the London residence of Pearson’s right-hand man Raymond, played by Charlie Hunnam best known for his role on the TV series Sons of Anarchy. Because they are told by an unreliable third party witness, the flashbacks shown throughout the movie are suspect at best and tell a particular story in which major details may have been excluded, which leaves the audience guessing about what is really happening. Pearson wants to get out of the business because he believes it is the right time before marijuana is legalized and to spend more time with his posh car-loving wife Rosalind, played by Michelle Dockery. In typical Guy Ritchie-fashion, the film is filled with charismatic yet foul-mouthed unsavory characters involved in the criminal underworld and who are depicted as comically over-the-top but always ready with witty puns that are rather profane. Pearson encounters difficulties as he navigates the sale of his almost half a billion dollar business to the American billionaire Matthew Berger, played by Jeremy Strong best known for his role on HBO’s TV series Succession. One such group that complicates things is Chinese gangsters led by a mysterious man named Lord George and his powerful underling nicknamed Dry Eye, played by Henry Golding best known for his role in the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, who are also interested buyers that brazenly commit criminal deeds in order to reduce the sale price. The plaid-suited Colin Farrell shows up in the story as a somewhat reformed criminal simply known as Coach after a group of teenagers he is mentoring at a boxing gym break into one of Pearson’s secret marijuana growing labs. Towards the end of the movie, things get increasingly complex and at times confusing for the audience as a result of the rapid-fire script and the revelation of several big twists in the plotline that puts into question the narrative told by Fletcher who has ulterior motives for recounting the story to Raymond. Overall, although occasionally the film is slow-paced and not as flashy as one would expect from the filmmaker, I found it to be a refreshing revisit to a classic Guy Ritchie movie after a string of bad movies very much out of line with his well-known gangster comedies.

Bad Boys for Life

The third installment in the Bad Boys franchise that first started in 1995 and later with a 2003 sequel, Bad Boys for Life is a highly entertaining action comedy that revitalizes the long-running movie series anchored by the charismatic duo of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and has a perfect mix of explosive action sequences and comedic banter between the two very different characters. The plot follows two old-fashioned police officers Detective Lieutenant Marcus Burnett, played by the very funny Martin Lawrence, who is contemplating retirement after the birth of his grandson and Detective Lieutenant Mike Lowrey, played by action super star Will Smith, who still wants to remain a cop and has no desire to settle down with a family. Their long-serving boss Captain Conrad Howard, played by character actor Joe Pantoliano, assigns Marcus and Mike to the newly-created tactical division AMMO led by Mike’s ex-girlfriend and well-respected lieutenant Rita, played by Paola Núñez. Being part of the joke about their age, the team is made up of younger police officers with technological knowledge and include a character who is played by Vanessa Hudgens. Their mission is to help solve the murders of several law enforcement officers involved in a drug cartel case years ago and track down the suspected killer Armando, played by Jacob Scipio, whose mother Isabel, played by Kate del Castillo, is a ruthless drug cartel leader living in Mexico City. Like its predecessors, the movie is filled with over-the-top action sequences in which gun battles and explosions are going off all over the place throughout the city of Miami and eventually Mexico. Things go terribly wrong for both Marcus and Mike that make them reconsider retirement and think about their future lives together and with family. In between the thrilling action scenes, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are perfect as buddy cops as a result of their believable chemistry and hilarious rapport in which they make fun of one another but no matter what see themselves as brothers. The movie was a nostalgic look back on the 1990s and early 2000s when theaters were filled with action comedies, including the original Bad Boys and other action flicks starring Martin Lawrence. Overall, I found it to be a first-rate action comedy that is much better than the original two versions of the Bad Boys franchise as a result of its effectively timed action and comedy that makes for a fun and exciting blockbuster movie.

Uncut Gems

Co-written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie best known for 2017’s Good Time starring Robert Pattinson, Uncut Gems is a fast-paced and thrilling drama about a jeweler in New York City who is spiraling out of control as a result of his gambling addiction and debts to dangerous loan sharks. Played by Adam Sandler in an Oscar-worthy performance, the Jewish Howard Ratner is in the middle of brokering his biggest jewelry sale after he acquires a very large uncut gem from Ethiopia and is desperate to sell it in order to pay off his large gambling debts. He owns a small jewelry shop in the frenetic New York City Diamond District and caters to famous clientele, including Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett, played by himself, who are brought to him by the well-connected Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield. By following the very unlucky Howard over the course of several days, the filmmakers are brilliantly able to take the audience on a dizzying adrenaline-fueled chase through the city as Howard tries to survive one big misstep after another while on the run from his angry loan shark Arno, played by Eric Bogosian, and his thugs. What makes the movie work so well is the rapid-fire dialogue in which characters speak over one another as if in real life and the switching very quickly from shot to shot and edit to edit. It also feels authentic because it films in the actual Diamond District that is notoriously cautious of outsiders and shows the real gritty and fast-paced world of a very particular kind of jeweler whose lives and livelihoods depend on making deals on a daily basis. As he deals with his very deadly gambling debts and losing possession of the gem that he believes will turn his life around, Howard’s personal life is equally tumultuous as he balances time between his estranged wife Dinah, played by Tony winner Idina Menzel, and his much younger mistress Julia, played by Julia Fox. The unexpected brilliant performance given by Adam Sandler, who is known for juvenile comedies, terrifically illustrates how his character’s entire life is nothing but a series of gambles: there are bets that pay off and others that incur great debt to volatile individuals. Overall, I found it to be a non-stop and exhilarating one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that both entertains and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats; the hyperactive cinematography and filmmaking along with the believable and committed acting performances make for a brilliant movie.

Knives Out

Written, produced, and directed by Rian Johnson best known for 2005’s Brick and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out is a modern take on the classic murder mystery whodunit that has a brilliant script with many twists and a terrific ensemble cast, making for one of the most entertaining movies in recent memory. Similar to an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the story revolves around the mysterious death of a wealthy crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, whose entire dysfunctional family are gathered together for his 85th birthday in his remote grand old mansion in Massachusetts. After discovering his body in what looks like a suicide, the police led by Detective Lieutenant Elliot, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as well as a stereotypical Southern private detective named Benoit Blanc, played by a very memorable Daniel Craig, begin an investigation to see whether there was foul play so they begin interviewing each member of the family. There is the oldest daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has an air of self-importance; Linda’s husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, who may be having an affair; the youngest son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, who runs his father’s publishing company but feels underappreciated; and the daughter-in-law Joni, played by Toni Collette, who always tries to ingratiate herself to her father-in-law who financially supports her and her daughter. Equally unique characters, the younger generation is comprised of the spoiled socialite Ransom, played by Chris Evans; the conservative Internet troll teenager Jacob, played by Jaeden Martell; and the liberal college student Meg, played by Katherine Langford. Detective Blanc, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s famous detective character Hercule Poirot, is a rather funny character who is brilliant but sometimes is a over-the-top buffoon throughout his investigation in which nobody is eliminated as a suspect. An unexpected central character of the plot is Harlan’s young Hispanic caregiver Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who genuinely cares for Harlan unlike his rather unpleasant money-grubbing family. The filmmaker does an excellent job of having the eccentric characters play off one another as they are really competing to see who will benefit the most financially from Harlan’s will. Besides the excellent cast, what really sets the movie apart is the script full of entertaining surprises and unexpected twists that harks back to the classic murder mystery movies that relied less on bloody violence. What makes it different is it is much more of a comedy that pokes fun at upper class families who are very much out-of-touch with the rest of the world and only think about maintaining their wealth and status. Overall, I found the film to be true cinematic gold that is so entertaining that one feels as if they are a part of the investigation and playing a game of Clue. Rian Johnson creates something that feels so new and extraordinary for such a old-fashioned style mystery; he was also blessed by a wonderful cast that really pulled the whole thing together. Three words: go see it!

The Good Liar

Directed by Bill Condon best known for 1998’s Gods and Monsters and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, The Good Liar is an above-average British crime thriller that is somewhat predictable but is a devilishly fun showcase for the critically acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. The story follows the con artist Roy, played by British Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, who preys on the gullible using fake identities to make away with large amounts of money. Eventually, he meets the well-off widow Betty, played by British Oscar winner Helen Mirren, and decides to make her his latest mark by earning her trust through a romantic relationship. Over the course of their companionship and possible dating, he cleverly manipulates her to allow him to stay at her house pretending to have a knee injury. After a trip to Berlin in which Roy reveals surprising facts about his real background brought forth by Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven, played by Russell Tovey, Roy tries to convince Betty to create a joint bank account with the help of his long-time accomplice Vincent, played by Jim Carter best known for his role in Downton Abbey, who is posing as a investment accountant. The real fun showing the chemistry between the actors comes towards the end of the film when the intentions of both Roy and Betty are finally brought to life through a series of plot twists connected to their lives as teenagers during World War II. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie to pass the time that does not really add much to the genre but is worthwhile to watch simply for the brilliant performances given by Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in their first movie together.