James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Clay // Film Critic
BIRDS OF PREY
It seems impossible not to open movie reviews from a pre-quarantine era without thinking about what life was like on the big screen.
One of the few glitzy tent poles to hit theaters this year was BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN, starring Margot Robbie and based off the DC Comics character. The title is one helluva mouthful, and what director Cathy Yan serves up is a delicious meal that’s tasty as cotton candy and has as many stylish looks as the Met Gala. BIRDS OF PREY is the type of frivolous fun that activates nearly all the senses, and for a film that is beholden to a franchise, the film remains artistically intact.
Maybe it’s the dynamic supporting cast (including Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco and Rosie Perez), or maybe it’s the cuddly CGI hyena named Bruce (yes, after Bruce Wayne), or the mouth-watering egg sandwich served up for Harley. Either way, this is one of the best fun escapes in months.
BIRDS OF PREY takes a tone that’s a little bit of a mix of the snark of DEADPOOL and a bonkers LOONEY TUNES-like aesthetic. It’s intentionally obnoxious with loads to absorb, from witty jokes, sight gags, to incredible costumes and production design. There may not be too many surprises, but Yan has announced herself as a creative force to be reckoned with. And, of course, Margot Robbie is a slam dunk!
- Birds Eye View Mode – An alternative look when you play the film that features cool behind-the-scenes moments and thoughtful excerpts from the cast and creatives. It’s absolutely worth watching if you loved the film.
- Birds of a Feather – A making-of the movie that shows the road the filmmakers and producer Margot Robbie took to get the film made.
- Grime and Crime – This featurette takes a peek behind the glitter factory to get an in-depth look at the film’s wondrous production design.
- Sanity is So Last Season – A look into the fashion influences of the film.
As far as the theatrical landscape goes in 2020, Stella Meghie’s film THE PHOTOGRAPH is a complete outlier. Not only did the film make it to the big screen right before the COVID-19 outbreak, but it’s an original film written and directed by an African American woman that’s not a household name.
The slick romantic drama – led by Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, and co-starring Rob Morgan, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Teyonah Parrish – feels like more of a throwback to the ’90s urban-centered stories. (Urban was a blanket term used way back when to describe films starring African Americans.) While Meghie’s film sets itself apart by using its narrative to tell a decades-long story from now-antiquated physical photographs, it has the DNA of titles like LOVE JONES, POETIC JUSTICE and LOVE & BASKETBALL coursing through every frame. THE PHOTOGRAPH’s dulcet images may prove to be too muted for some, but for those searching for a raw sensitivity and unapologetic sexuality will be heavily rewarded.
Meghie’s film centers around Michael Block (Stanfield, who has never oozed with this much natural sex appeal), a hungry yet accomplished reporter that specializes in human interest stories. He’s been interviewing a man named Isaac (Morgan) who has the lost photographs of Christina Eames, an artist who disappeared many years before. This search travels through the past and present collides when Michael encounters Eames estranged daughter Mae (Rae, a successful professional living in New York City.
Meghie’s script takes a relaxed approach towards the romantic material, letting the tension build between the two lovers and giving the audience a chance to exist in their chilled out headspace. Her direction creates an atmosphere that can only be penetrated by Robert Glasper’s jazzy score, which is the most memorable film composition to come out in this truncated year.
Stanfield and Rae build up a likely romance that careens into hurdles that rarely, if ever, affect films centering on young black professionals. They are treated like any other movie character with average problems and with the respect the story deserves. Seldomly do audiences get to see black love get this much reverence from filmmakers working today. Meghie doesn’t pander to her audience and consequently created a classy story that deserves to be discovered.
- Shooting The Photograph – A basic look into the making of the film.
- Culture in Film – A look into the film framing from the black perspective. Writer and director Stella Meghie and her producer Will Packer tell the story.
- The Film Through Photographs – How Stella Meghie told a resonate story through still frames.
Lorcan Finnegan’s VIVARIUM is a movie made for a time in quarantine. Just be cautious that it may frighten, confuse, and frustrate those who are feeling the effects of being trapped in their home with only Netflix and a crying kid to keep them company. The definition of the very word “vivarium” says everything you need to know about this thriller: “an enclosure, container or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under the semi-natural condition for observation or study or as pets.”
Sharing the screen place again after last year’s painfully dry yet effective comedy THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. In the film, the two stars portray the couple, Tom and Gemma. Tom is a handyman while Gemma is a school teacher looking to take that next step in their lives –– which for most, naturally, is buying a house. They’re searching for validation and a way to solidify their relationship. But what they fall prey to is a dehumanizing experiment that has the two trapped inside a flat circle that has them repeating their days while raising an otherworldly, rapidly growing child (an effectively annoying Senan Jennings).
Without much purpose other than to take on their assigned gender roles, Tom and Gemma begin to change. Like any good TWILIGHT ZONE-esque story, there is a bit moral fiber located at the center, and the ending just leaves you wanting more. The frame is filled with a sterile look and modern lines mixed with surrealist bends and perfect little clouds hanging in the sky that Gemma calls “sickening.” Finnegan’s direction is precise and brings out nuances in his actors that could be called abstract filmmaking for beginners, which isn’t a knock on the filmmaker’s work. VIVARIUM is an excellent gateway film for those searching for the weirder corners of cinema.
This film is brief, effective and has an intense sting in its final moments that ties everything together. VIVARIUM’s version of an endurance test causes your mind to slip. For those dealing with cabin fever, you’ve been warned.
- Feature Commentary – with Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Stanley
- The Making of VIVARIUM – An effective 20-minute long feature that spills all the beans and secrets behind the film. It’s an incredibly satisfying companion after seeing the film.