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After being the only thing worth anyone’s time in Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn gets her own movie in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a marked improvement over the film that featured Margot Robbie’s first go at the role.

Unfortunately, “improved” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”

There’s something askew plot-wise in Birds of Prey—specifically, it doesn’t really have a plot, and the shards of plot it does have are presented sloppily. The movie hops around time spasmodically, like a tweaker on a pogo stick—and while I love Robbie, her Harley Quinn shtick can grate at times.

(By the way, I’m watching Margot on Hot Ones as I write this review, and she’s giving a captivating performance on this YouTube series—not as good as Shia LaBeouf’s performance on the show, but still. She cannot handle her hot wings. I’m actually fearing for her life as I watch this. I won’t give away the ending.)

Anyway, Harley Quinn is joined by the Birds of Prey this time out, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) all get high marks for what they bring to the party. The basic plot involves bad-guy Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), trying to get a big diamond from a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco). That’s about it for story.

Much of the film is spent talking about the Joker, which is strange, because this movie is supposed to be proof that the Birds of Prey don’t need the Joker in their movie. Harley broke up with the Joker, so, mercifully, we don’t have to endure Jared Leto’s take on the character again. Get that plot element out of the way, and let’s move on, right? Nope: The film contains near-constant references to the fact that the Joker is not in this movie. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson seem afraid to let go of the Clown Prince of Crime as a plot presence. Newsflash: Nobody cares about the Suicide Squad incarnation of Joker. He was quite underwhelming. It’s all about Joaquin Phoenix now.

The movie, despite being a bit of a fluster-cuck, is sporadically fun. There’s a running bit involving the perfect egg sandwich that is pretty good. The ass-kicking scenes, during which the Birds fly into action, are kinetic and have pop. McGregor’s Sionis has a sadomasochistic relationship with his henchman, Victor (Chris Messina), that’s good for some laughs. And, I love, love, love Bruce, Harley’s pet hyena, named after a certain morose billionaire.

Of the Birds, Smollett-Bell registers the highest as Black Canary, a character who deserves her own movie. Smollett-Bell has the sort of onscreen presence that does not show up that often. She’s done some good work in the past, but she really makes a mark here. Rosie Perez hasn’t been this much fun since Pineapple Express; here, she’s a tough Gotham cop who is willing to bend the rules to get the job done. The always-reliable Winstead is good as The Huntress, although she’s a bit underused.

Robbie is still fun, but the film’s effort to make her a kinder, warmer Harley Quinn renders her a slight bit boring at times. She’s better when she is pure nasty with a little bit of funny. This movie asks her to be a constantly hyper, safer character who’s perhaps a bit too heroic. That’s a mistake—and the sequence in which Harley re-enacts the iconic Marilyn Monroe routine from Gentleman Prefer Blondes is just plain dumb.

Harley Quinn will be back for the James Gunn-helmed The Suicide Squad, but I’m thinking the failures of this installment might put future Harley-centered ventures on hold. Harley and her Birds of Prey have a lot of potential, but their first film together misses the mark. It also needed at least 10 more minutes of Bruce the Hyena.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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Actor John Krasinski’s second directorial effort is a decent film with a first-rate cast. Krasinski stars in The Hollars as John Hollar, a man working a dead-end job for a publishing company when his girlfriend (the always-great Anna Kendrick) informs him his mom (a terrific Margo Martindale) is sick—and that he needs to fly home to see her.

Once there, John has to deal with his weird brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), the oddball nurse who is also his old girlfriend’s new husband (Charlie Day) and his weepy dad (Richard Jenkins). The script goes through some familiar territory, but the performers put new spins on the situations—especially Martindale, who takes the part and really runs with it.

Krasinski does a good job of handling the script’s many mood swings, and the relationships feel real … that strange kind of real.

The film manages to get laughs, even when the subject matter goes to dark places. It deals with the lousier side of life without getting totally depressing—something that could’ve happened easily. Krasinski makes it all work.

The supporting cast includes Randall Park, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Groban in small but memorable roles. The soundtrack is stellar, featuring Josh Ritter, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Wilco.

The Hollars opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

Just as he did with the first Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams has again managed to sneak a movie into multiplexes under a shroud of secrecy and mystery: With a little more than a couple of months’ notice, a film shot under the code name Valencia became 10 Cloverfield Lane.

What’s the significance of the word “Cloverfield” in that movie title? Abrams is calling this film a blood relative to the original found-footage monster movie. This new film is not a found footage film, thank god, but after seeing it, I can tell you the title is not misleading—although you shouldn’t go to this thinking you will see the monster from Cloverfield laying waste to middle America. It’s a much different kind of movie.

The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on an urgent phone call with somebody. She grabs her keys, hits the road and drives for what appears to be many miles out of the big city and into the cornfields. After stopping for some gas, her car crashes for mysterious reasons. She wakes up from said crash with an IV drip—and her leg cuffed to a bar.

Shortly thereafter, she meets Howard (John Goodman). Howard seems a little bit anxious and tells her that she needs to hydrate and practice using crutches. And, oh yeah, the end of the world is nigh. No one really knows why, but the air is now contaminated, and they must reside in his emergency bunker for what could be years.

There’s another inhabitant of the bunker: Howard’s soft-spoken neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Emmett allegedly helped Howard put the bunker together, and he’s not really sure why the world is ending, either. All of this leads the beautiful Michelle, in the captive hands of two questionable strangers, to be suspicious. She wants to be outside, even if the world is dying.

Is the world really ending? Howard seems to think so, citing nuclear war and alien invasion as possibilities. Emmett, meanwhile, does not necessarily seem all that worried about it. He just seems happy to be around Michelle all day, putting puzzles together. Is it just a grand plan for two creepy guys to imprison a beautiful woman for their perverted means?

First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg does a nice job of keeping the audience guessing. I went into 10 Cloverfield Lane with my own guesses, based on the trailers, regarding how everything would play out, and how the film would tie into the “Cloverfield Universe.” My guesses were, for the most part, confirmed—although there were a few deviations.

Winstead is an acting treasure who doesn’t get enough opportunities to shine; see her performance in Smashed (2012) for proof. She’s equally good here, playing a strong-minded hostage justifiably brimming with paranoia. She’s very easy to root for, even when the screenplay tries to tilt sympathies toward Howard and Emmett.

In his meatiest role in years, Goodman is golden as the “maybe he’s a monster; maybe he’s a savior” survivalist. There are nuances in his work that will keep you guessing every second he’s onscreen. As for Emmett … this is no knock on Gallagher, but his character seems tacked on.

The film is a slick thriller with a few plot holes that might nag you afterward. For me, it offered few major surprises—although that has much to do with me seeing so many movies, and being savvy to many directorial tricks. When the movie did “get” me on occasion, it did so competently.

Above all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an impressive acting exhibition for Winstead and Goodman, who play really well off of each other. As more mysteries about Howard and the outside world are revealed, the tension ratchets up, and Trachtenberg proves himself a fine handler of all the elements.

I’m guessing 10 Cloverfield Lane is not the last movie we will see with “Cloverfield” in the title. Think of the Cloverfield movies as an anthology series with a few plot machinations tying things together. Two movies in, it’s proving to be a fine endeavor.

10 Cloverfield Laneis playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Miles Teller delivers his breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until well-balanced Aimee (Shailene Woodley) comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—although sometimes, that can be the best way to start a relationship. Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into something far from your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is one of the more unique and intelligent takes on growing up that you are likely to see. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who about a year ago piloted Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, having made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

A plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—but it’s spectacular indeed.

Special Features: There are more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes, some of them quite good. One notable one includes Sutter giving a kid a ride home from a quickie mart and revealing some stuff about his alcoholism. You also get some short making-of featurettes and a commentary with the director.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Miles Teller delivers a breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until a well-balanced girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—but sometimes, that’s the best way to start a relationship.

Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into someone who’s much more than your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is a unique and intelligent take on growing up. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who piloted last year’s terrific Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, seeing as he’s now made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

The plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—yet that’s not the case. It’s spectacular indeed.

The Spectacular Now is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews