BIRDS OF PREY (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Cert 15 Stars 4

Girl power is given a badass makeover in this freewheeling foul-mouthed superhero action comedy, whose double identity is as a raucous relationship breakup party for the social media generation.

Led by Margot Robbie’s gloriously anarchic Harley Quinn, it sees a flock of assorted women, such as Ella Jay Basco’s young pickpocket, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s vigilante, Rosie Perez’s cop and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s super-powered nightclub singer, in pursuit of a missing mafia diamond.

Harley Quinn was first introduced in 2016’s mostly rubbish but wildly successful super-villain adventure, Suicide Squad, but as its standout character, fully deserves this stand-alone spin-off romp.

The now ex-girlfriend of Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, a heartbroken Harley is struggling to embrace independence and recognise her own self-worth.

The film takes place in an alternative timeline to Joaquin’s Phoenix’s BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated version of Joker, and the clown prince of crime is only very briefly glimpsed.

Without the Joker’s protection Harley is now a target for Gotham City’s underworld, not least Ewan McGregor’s enjoyably camp master criminal, Black Mask, who also wants the diamond.

Robbie is a blast as she pours heart, soul and in-your-face attitude into her character, creating a brilliantly spontaneous and irrepressible modern update on Marilyn Monroe’s sweet and sexy screen persona, complete with a nightmarish spin on her famous song and dance number, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

Harley talks directly to the camera as the story flashbacks and zips forward, with director Cathy Yan throwing out the leering camerawork of Suicide Squad in favour of a hyperactive grab-bag of graphics and fun-filled acrobatic action, including a breathless and brilliant rollerskating finale.

Yan and Robbie dress the thin plot as a ‘this is my life’ Youtube-style confessional video, albeit one with Hollywood production values, and once you’ve adjusted to the manic tone and the story kicks in, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Imagine an alternative Spice Girls movie, but one bursting with the character and charisma of talented performers at the top of their game and a far superior soundtrack.

Funny, irreverent, violent, trashy and a celebration of sisterhood with an unmissable message of female empowerment, it’s an irresistible rainbow riot of popcorn fun.

THE RHYTHM SECTION

Cert 15 Stars 2

When people say they want a female James Bond, presumably this flat and action-light espionage revenge thriller, produced by Bond supremos, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson on a considerably lower budget than 007 enjoys.

Out has gone the gloss, glamour, gadgets and humour, with the globetrotting reduced to Western Europe, New York and Morocco, with buses being the principal form of transport.

As a drug addict prostitute turned assassin, US star Blake Lively is denied the opportunity to play to her strengths, who cleans up to kill the people responsible for the deaths of her family in a terrorist bombing.

She previously demonstrated her authority, charisma and physical prowess in thrillers The Shallows, and, A Simple Favour, but she’s never given the opportunity to be glamorous, and is possibly hampered by having to adopt a pretty decent British accent.

A random choice of classic rock tunes are dropped in by an editor desperate to pep up the somber mood. I suspect the producers don’t expect any great box office, and the film’s delayed release forms part of the marketing strategy for April’s upcoming 007 adventure, No Time To Die.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Cert PG Stars 4

Tom Hanks is at his most disarming and subtle as a real life US TV icon in this soulful, therapeutic and irresistible family drama.

We’re not familiar with the saintly Fred Rogers over here, but for over four decades he hosted a PlayAway style kids show, and the film suggests he was so popular and beloved he was capable of inspiring an impromptu singalong on the subway simply by sitting there.

However Matthew Rhys’s cynical investigative journalist is hoping to uncover some dirt underneath Roger’s spotless halo.

This seems a reasonable proposition as the cardigan wearing Rodgers seems remarkably old fashioned even in 1998 when the film is set, particularly as TV stars of my 1970s childhood have been revealed to be far from wholesome.

Rhys is full of barely suppressed anger, even more so when he finds himself on the end of a gentle inquisition from Rogers regarding his own estranged relationship with his father and the difficulties of bonding with his new born son.

And you have to feel sorry for the actor as the superb Hanks quietly steals the film from him, earning himself a Best supporting actor nod with his 6th Oscar nomination.

An avuncular, polite, generous and humble dispenser of wisdom, Rodgers often feels a distant relative of Hanks’ 1995 Oscar winning role as Forrest Gump.

And intent on bringing out the best in everyone he meets, he’s essentially an American Paddington Bear, but without the marmalade sandwiches.

Directed by with a firm, sensitive and accomplished hand by Marielle Heller, she drives the film from the backseat and allows the actors to hold our attention.

Though far less needy and attention grabbing her staging and camerawork are in their own way as impressive as that in First World War film, 1917, and she deploys the power of silence with a nuclear emotional efficiency.

Plus the TV theme tune is impossibly catchy, and you’ll be humming it on the way out through your tears.

QUEEN & SLIM

Cert 15 Stars 4

Fear and harassment on an online date leads to violence and a desperate bid for freedom in this confident, muscular, accomplished and heartbreaking US crime drama which always feels authentic and never exploitative.

When a white policeman is shot after he’s pulled them over, black citizens Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya try to escape to communist Cuba, a destination full of implicit criticism of US capitalism and its historical relationship with slave labour.

By turns thrilling, funny and moving, their journey progresses from being a road trip expose of US racial divisions to a lyrical love story, with a script which digs into ideas of social mobility, role models and solidarity.

However TV reports and social media bestows an unwelcome air of celebrity on the outlaw pair, feeding negative stereotypes and helping perpetuate a cycle of oppression.

As a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, Turner-Smith and Kaluuya make a combative and sexy pair, and shockingly overlooked by the major awards the British acting duo could at least have expected some recognition from the BAFTAs.

RICHARD JEWELL

Cert 15 Stars 4

Approaching his fiftieth year as a film director, Clint Eastwood’s latest real life drama uses a tale of heroism to train his sights on two of his favourite targets, the US government and the media.

As represented here by Jon Hamm’s FBI agent and Olivia Wilde’s ambitious journalist, they’re considered as being so much in bed together, they actually go to bed together, and are portrayed as the real enemy of gun-loving white folk.

Paul Walter Hauser brings quiet dignity and sympathy to the title role, an under-educated, over-weight former cop turned security guard who saves lives during the bomb attack at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

However he finds himself accused of terrorism in the court of public opinion, with only Best Supporting actress Oscar nominee Kathy Bates as his mother, Sam Rockwell’s down-at-heel lawyer, and the US Constitution, at his side.

The latter part of Eastwood’s career has focused exclusively on celebrating ordinary blue collar people in extraordinary circumstances, and Richard Jewell is typically accessible, crowd pleasing and polished.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Cert 15 Stars 4

This demanding and demented gothic horror about a pair of 1890’s lighthouse keepers is as far from the Adventures of Portland Bill as Dorothy was from Kansas.

As uncompromising as the rain-lashed stump of rock off the US’s Atlantic coast on which they begin a four week stint of duty, it’s a barking study in madness from Robert Eggers.

Having previously directed 2015’s acclaimed art house horror The Witch, which was also creepy if low on scares, the atmospheric black-and-white photography is nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars.

Committing to their roles with impressive vigour, Willem Dafoe plays a one-legged crabby old sea dog, from whom Robert Pattinson is supposed to be learning the ropes.

But with the weather even more foul than a British summertime picnic, they punctuate their drudgery with dancing, drinking and violence, they lose all sense of time as their sanity is battered by hallucinations, seagulls, storms, and sexual fantasies about mermaids.

Pattinson also goes batty in his next film, playing Gotham City’s Caped Crusader in next years superhero reboot.

 

THE TURNING

Cert 15 Stars 1

In squandering its grand Irish setting, superlative source material and a game cast in favour of tepid atmosphere, timid scares and bewildering incompetence, this supernatural gothic horror is an early contender for the worst film of the year.

Mackenzie Davis is a warm presence with a hard working line of quizzical looks and can scream to order, which are all useful traits playing Kate, a newly appointed governess to a wealthy seven year old orphan.

Brooklynn Prince is exuberant and engaging as Flora, she lives in a stately manor which is somewhat neglected since the groundskeeper mysteriously died.

Apparitions appear at windows, there are ghostly voices at night and then stranger things happen when Flora’s teenage brother unexpectedly arrives home from boarding school.

Played by Finn Wolfhard, Miles has a love of macabre practical jokes, predatory spiders and inappropriate behaviour.

Teasing violence and nudity but delivering neither, it updates Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, from 1898 to 1994,  but twists James’ studied ambiguity into rambling slipshod incoherence.