Parasite (15) ****
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) (15) ***
Dolittle (PG) *
Bong Joon-ho’s Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated Parasite sees the South Korean genre master return to home territory with a darkly amusing and disturbing social horror film about a fallen-on-hard-times family insinuating themselves into the lives of a much wealthier clan. Swiftly establishing the resourcefulness of its marginalised protagonists, the film’s richly metaphorical opening introduces us to the Kim family living a somewhat subterranean existence in a basement apartment where they filch free wi-fi from neighbours and nearby coffee shops and endure the choking fits that come from leaving the windows of their insect-infested home open while the streets above are being fumigated.
Scraping together a meagre living folding pizza boxes, their fortunes soon take a turn for the better when the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), bluffs his way into a job as an English language tutor for the teenage daughter of the tech-rich Park family. Exploiting the gullibility of his new employers, Ki-woo’s father (Song Kang-ho), mother (Chang Hyae-jin) and sister (Park So-dam) waste no time engineering ways to usurp the Park household’s other domestic staff, a task they execute with a ruthless efficiency that’s both awful and amusing.
Here Bong is careful not to demonise or valorise either family; as a filmmaker he’s less interested in finger-wagging admonishments than he is in taking us to uncomfortable places with outré plot twists that deepen and reframe what we think we know about the characters. Setting the action mostly within the sleek confines of the Park family’s modernist home, he makes great use of the film’s location to emphasise the ingrained feelings of superiority and inferiority that exist within his characters. As resentments build and the professionally courteous line between employers and employees is crossed in at first subtle but then shocking ways, what lingers is the way the film’s title increasingly refers to the complexities of a world that feeds off the simple dreams of anyone with a vested interest in improving their status and protecting what they’ve got.
Of all DC’s attempts to create an extended cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s, 2016’s super-villian team-up Suicide Squad was the worst: a crass slice of corporate edginess that couldn’t even capitalise on having the Joker (then played by Jared Leto) in its roster of reprobates. Its one bright spark was Margot Robbie’s histrionically unhinged turn as the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn, a punky, baseball-bat-wielding psycho wholly subservient to her beau’s anarchic worldview. It makes sense, then, that in an effort to keep the franchise going Robbie’s character should get her own interim spin-off movie ahead of next year’s sequel. (For all its flaws, Suicide Squad still made close to $750m.) As the parenthetically elongated title suggests, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) is a deliberately over-the-top attempt to make something true to the gonzo spirit of the character as she frees herself from the literal and figurative toxicity of her chemical-plant-forged romance with the Crown Prince of Crime.
Striking out on her own, Robbie’s cackling, kill-crazy kook now finds herself facing a slew of vendetta-hungry criminals no longer worried about reprisals from her ex. Chief among these is Ewan McGregor’s campy gangster, Roman Sionis, a sadistic nightclub owner whose bid to take over Gotham City’s criminal underworld forces Harley into an uneasy allegiance with a crossbow-wielding assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a hard-bitten cop (Rosie Perez), an ass-kicking nightclub singer (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a teenage pick-pocket (Ella Jay Basco). Here, newbie director Cathy Yan and Bumblebee screenwriter Christina Hodson give Gotham City a Day-Glo makeover in keeping with their anti-heroine and, likewise, they adopt an insouciant attitude to violence that recalls the self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking style of Deadpool, albeit with shallow comic-book feminism replacing shallow comic-book nihilism. The end result is occasionally entertaining and frequently enervating.
The 1967 musical version of Dr Dolittle hastened the end of the old studio system. The 1998 comedy version gave Eddie Murphy’s career a second wind. The most notable thing about the new Robert Downey Jr version is the Iron Man star’s decision to follow his career-defining role driving one of the most successful, industry changing franchises in movie history with such a badly conceived and poorly made family film. Like previous iterations, Dolittle is loosely based on British author Hugh Lofting’s early 20th century children’s stories about a physician who realises he can talk to animals. Aside from an intriguing opening that introduces us to Dolittle as a grief-stricken recluse living in a country mansion with a menagerie of exotic animal pals, the film fails to enchant on any level.
Downey Jr’s wandering Welsh accent is the first stumbling block, though the chief blame surely lies with writer/director Stephen Gaghan. Better known for scripting taut, Oscar-winning political thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (which he also directed), he’s got no feel for effects-heavy adventure films. Built around a dull plot involving Dolittle’s globe-trotting quest to save the Queen of England (played by Jessie Buckley), this is little more than a series of chaotic set-pieces full of shoddily rendered CGI. Vocal and live-action cameos from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Antonio Banderas, Rami Malek and Emma Thompson add little to a film in which the comic highpoint is Downey Jr pulling a set of bagpipes from a grumpy dragon’s rear end. Alistair Harkness