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 3 minute video top 10 box office countdown

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.

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Cert 15 Stars 3

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return in tandem in this long awaited and disposable action comedy sequel, a violent crime caper which trades heavily on their amiable chemistry and delivers a macho workout of shoot-outs and car chases, but is absolutely abstemious in portraying any sexual activity.

Age can’t diminish Smith’s charismatic swagger, and if you missed Lawrence’s unique brand of tomfoolery, then you’ll be entertained by his performance here, after some years away from the big time.

As Miami cops they’re hunted by a Mexican cartel intent on revenge for the sins of a violent career, a story which leans into the current US political climate with its tales of feckless African-American youths and promiscuous Mexican women with the power of witchcraft.

With Mexico presented as a shanty town of corruption and exporter of terror, drugs and violence to the States, a modicum of balance is offered by the cop’s young, diverse and insanely attractive hi-tech support team, lead by Mexican actress Paola Nunez, and including Vanessa Hudgens and Alexander Ludwig.

Toning down the leering camerawork of the 2005 and 1993 instalments to favour drooling over expensive cars rather than bikini-clad women, Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah retain the slick, glossy, sun-kissed and hectic style pioneered by original director, Michael Bay, who is on hand to make an indulgent cameo.

Everything is photographed to make a reasonable budget look as if an extravagant amount of money has been spent, however the explosive set-pieces are noticeably smaller than the rival Fast Furious franchise, whose homilies about the nobility and prominence are ripped off by a workaday script.

And unlike the Mission Impossible franchise, the editing and cinematography seem designed to convince none of the actors are doing their own stunts.

With his name on the production titles at the film’s beginning, ahead of his credit on Tom Cruise’s upcoming Top Gun: Maverick, producer Don Simpson is having a banner year – an impressive achievement considering he’s been dead since 1996.

END OF WATCH

Stars 3

The writer of the Oscar winning smash hit Training Day, returns with another gritty police thriller set in South Central LA, but with a Denzel Washington-shaped hole where the charisma should be.

Writer and director David Ayer, shot entirely on location in fidgety, semi-documentary, police-cam video style, creating a loud and tense gun and drug movie where the highest ambition police officers have is to survive their shift and have their timesheet signed off, End Of Watch.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Mike Zavala Michael Pena are patrol car partners who come across a safe house belonging to a Mexican cartel who immediately put a price on their heads for disrupting their lucrative drugs trade.

The cops aren’t the brightest guns on the street but they are mostly honest and unquestioningly brave. Patrolling is a series of verbal abuse, brutal fist fights and vicious gun battles, and even the music is aggressive.

Off duty, Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez provide strong acting support as their wives, with America Ferrera and Frank Grillo as their fellow officers.

Watching this film is like being trapped for two hours in a small steel cage with a pair of uniformed, squabbling, slurping, chattering caffeinated kids, before being released on a regular basis to be shot at by angry Uzi abusing gangsters.

Ayer doesn’t wholly commit to his handheld format which reduces its authenticity, and the last two scenes are unnecessary and lessen the films impact.

Despite this the two officers hold your sympathy and attention because although they’re not as interesting or entertaining as the film believes they are, even the most basic police work involves being screamed and shot at.

Their wives are the only lightness in their lives and in the movie and are a sweet and sassy counterpoint to the constant aggravation the men experience on duty.

This is a portrait of a city in a state of siege, and the only advice the script can offer is to wear comfortable shoes and a bulletproof vest.

WONDER WHEEL

Cert 12A Stars 4

Kate Winslet has been grievously overlooked during awards season for her magnificent turn in Woody Allen’s dark period drama, his 48th film as director.

When even your leading lady distances herself from your movie for personal reasons, one suspects time’s up for Allen’s big screen career.

Allen’s work exists within its own little bubble, and it’s the small differences which separate his films from each other. For the most urban of directors, it’s almost alarming to find this one is set on the beach and filled with bold saturated colour.

In a welcome gender inversion, she plays the ‘Woody Allen’ character, a neurotic and romantically minded waitress having an affair with a younger lover.

Justin Timberlake is the hunky lifeguard on whom she projects a fantasy future together.

As ever in Allen’s films, when someone chooses to pursue a fantasy existence over harsh reality, tragic events occur. This is not one of Allen’s funny ones.

 

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Cert 15 135mins Stars 5

Uncompromising director, Spike Lee, returns to the frontline of cinema with this urgent and extraordinary real life 1970’s crime thriller.

Packed full of tension, humour, great performances and Lee’s trademark political broadsides, it’s dressed in the funkadelic look of the era’s blacksploitation films and follows the first African American recruit of the Colorado police as he infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

He’s played by a terrific John David Washington, who’s inherited much of the charisma, talent and the voice of his father, the Oscar winning-actor, Denzel.

As the eager undercover detective, Ron Stallworth, he begins his investigation by responding to a advert in the local press and asks to join the supposedly secretive society. He’s aided by his Jewish partner, played by Adam Driver, best known as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars films.

Ever alert to hypocrisy and the ridiculous, Lee angrily mocks the current political situation in this gobsmacking, terrifying and heroic examination of US society.

AVENGEMENT

Cert 18 Stars 2

Tattooed and muscular action star Scot Adkins, swaggers through this low budget British gangster thriller with two-fisted menace as an escaped convict out for revenge on his criminal former colleagues.

Reunited with writer and director Jesse V. Johnson with whom he made Adkins made the recent martial arts thriller, Triple Threat.

Nasty, violent and foul-mouthed, it‘s a cut above many of its type due to the efforts of cinematographer Jonathan Hall, and helped by a supporting cast which includes the always watchable Nick Moran, Thomas Turgoose and Kierston Wareing.