Friday Flicks February 7: “Birds of Prey,” “The Traitor” & “Gretel and Hansel”

M.V. MoorheadFebruary 7, 2020
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Opening this weekend:

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)—Armed with a broad Gotham accent, Margot Robbie is endearingly crazy-eyed, manic and girlishly bouncy as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s jilted, heartsick ex, in this newest DC free-for-all. When she’s not dodging old enemies who bear her any number of murderous grudges, she’s helping super-anti-heroine team Birds of Prey defend an adolescent (Ella Jay Basco) from a scuzzy, sadistic gangster whose alter ego is supervillain Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).

This picture has a fine, gritty-yet-whimsical Tim Burton look to it, and a lot of driving angry-girl rock covers on the soundtrack. Like Marvel’s Deadpool and many other so-called anti-heroes and anti-heroines in big-budget movies, Harley is softened; she isn’t allowed to do anything so despicable that it could risk alienating the audience, nor are any of her cohorts. They’re bad girls, not evil girls.

Birds of Prey’s ad hoc membership includes Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a club singer who can really hit those high notes; Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ace with a crossbow; and tough cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). The teaming originated in DC’s cartoons and comics in the ‘90s, so I wasn’t familiar with it, but I enjoyed this wacky, blackly slapstick girls’ night out.

And that’s truly what the movie is, too. A woman friend with whom I saw it rightly pointed out that, despite the appeal of the actresses, Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan from a script by Christina Hodson, isn’t crafted to titillate boys; it really has the sensibility of a superhero movie for women and girls (not very young girls, though, maybe; it’s pretty violent and foul-mouthed). In the middle of battling some goons, for instance, one heroine borrows a scrunchie from another so she can pull her hair back, the better to kick butt.

At Harkins Camelview:

The Traitor (Il Traditore)—The very cool-looking Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, seen for years in supporting parts in American movies like Angels & Demons and World War Z among others, is the star of this Italian-German-French co-production. He’s Tommaso Buscetta, an esteemed and powerful Cosa Nostra soldier from Palermo who turned pentito (informant) in the mid-1980s and caused no end of difficulty for the Italian mob.

It’s a fine, understated performance at the heart of a ‘70s-style, sumptuously produced gangster chronicle directed by the veteran Marco Bellachio, who wrote the screenplay, in the Italian manner, with a cadre of collaborators. It’s epically solemn in the vein of The Godfather, with bursts of bloody violence that we’re asked to take seriously. The characters aren’t as eccentrically rich as those in Coppola’s masterpiece, to be sure, but they’re still well-played and vivid, especially the stunning Brazilian Maria Fernanda Candido as Buscetta’s wife.

As usual with gangster stories, we’re asked to enter into sympathy with people we find morally horrendous, and perhaps to see in them a reflection on our own moral blind spots. Favino is so quietly commanding that he makes this happen.

Still in theaters:

Gretel and Hansel—If there was a screening of this in time for its opening last weekend, I missed it. But horror buffs may want to check out this rather messed-up version of the classic fairy tale, shot in Ireland and atmospherically directed by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony). It’s almost certainly the only retelling of this story to date in which the title characters trip on magic mushrooms.

This Gretel is played by wary-eyed Sophia Lillis (Beverly in the It films), projecting intelligence as well as deep and panicked love for her bellyaching little brother (Sam Leakey). The standout, however, is Alice Krige as the Witch into whose rather modern and industrial-chic A-frame cabin in the woods they wander. Krige has always had an uncanny, seductive presence; here, under heavy makeup, she gives her lines a dry, purring wit.

Stretching the Grimm tale out to feature length required both some padding and a deliberate pace, but there’s lots of macabre imagination on display in the picture, and a bit of heart to balance the darkness. Still, it can’t compete with the all-time greatest screen treatment of the Hansel and Gretel story, 1954’s Bewitched Bunny, in which Bugs Bunny comes to the kids’ rescue. At no point, for instance, do this Gretel and Hansel insult the Witch with “Ach, yer mudder rides a vacuum cleaner!”

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