Birds of Prey is Actually a Fantabulous Film

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When Warner Brothers and DC announced that Harley Quinn would be getting a solo movie, I was not at all interested. When the trailers started to drop, I was slightly puzzled but curious. The trailers were oddly quirky and seemed to emphasize a lighter tone. When the movie came out, it did not do well in the theaters despite positive reception from critics as well as audiences who did see it. Frankly the film was oddly marketed and I don’t think Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands. And coming off the heels of the poorly received Suicide Squad, a spin-off already had the odds stacked against it. Having a long confusing name such as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — yes, that is the full title — certainly added to head scratches of not just movie goers but even comic fans.

With that out of the way I have to admit that Birds of Prey is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a DC film. even more than Shazam. Now bare with me a minute as I must quantify that Birds of Prey is not for everyone nor is it a typical comic book film. It is, however, funny, quirky, self aware, and full of original action sequences that are heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema, and especially Jackie Chan films. And all this is done without an over reliance on computer animation.

It is not necessary to watch Suicide Squad to see Birds of Prey. After a brief animated (Harley did originate as an original character for Batman the Animated Series afterall) montage on the origins of Harley Quinn and how she ended up with Joker, we are told that she finally dumped him.  Well, that’s her version anyway. The rest of Gotham’s underworld, however, does not know that Harley has changed her status from it’s complicated to single. She had been given big leeway because of her relationship with Joker. Too bad she gets drunk and spills the beans at a nightclub owned by narcissistic Roman Sionis. Sionis also happens to be a face-cutting-off bad guy known as Black Mask. And it turns out he is also after a valuable diamond not for the worth of the diamond but because there is a code written on the diamond that will unlock the vast fortunes of a slaughtered crime family.

There is a lot to digest in a movie that is less than two hours long here. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. There is a kid named Cassandra Cain who is a petty pickpocket living in foster care. Living in the same low rent building as Cassandra is Dinah, a singer at Roman’s club and new driver. There is a crossbow killer hunting down criminals in Gotham. There is a cop on the case against Roman (a pillar of the community) that comes right out of an 80s cop movie (really, Harley even tells us this). Cassandra Cain has stolen the diamond from one of Roman’s henchmen without knowing it is more than a diamond. Now she and the diamond become the McGuffin of the movie. Somehow, this all comes together in a wild mixture of comedy and action. And honestly, this movie could have worked if it was actually stretched out maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. I know that sounds unusual for a comic book film but this could have used some extra time for the story and characters to gel.

Despite the ensemble nature of the story, it is without a doubt a Harley Quinn movie. And by extension it is Margo Robbie’s movie. Robbie steps up to the plate, metal bat n hand, and swings mightily for the fences in this vehicle. She clearly shines in this and holds everything together. Ewan McGregor chews up the scenery like as one of the most flamboyant of DC movie villains who doesn’t wear clown makeup.

Backing up Robbie is a cast that includes Rosie Perez as Montoya, a by the gut anti-authority cliched cop.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, a character with some major revenge issues and is also quite socially awkward. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, who happens to be a Bat Girl in the comics, as a streetwise, slightly foul mouthed, orphan at the center of attention from the bad guys. She has the diamond, but well, she swallowed it which means there are pretty much only a couple of ways to get it.

The ensemble doesn’t really come together until the last act where in opposition to an Avengers like assembly where they team up to save the world, they are joining forces to not get killed. It is that last act that the movie realizes its potential. The action set includes an ensemble fight in the funhouse of an abandoned amusement park that packs a creative set pieces similar to some of Jackie Chan’s films such as City Hunter.  There are some fun stunts along the way, including Harley being pulled by a car while wearing roller skates. These action pieces are also evidently done with little to no reliance on computer effects as well. The action direction is uncredited to the director of the John Wick films and are just fun to watch as they are in some ways outrageous. Also of note on the action, like Hong Kong films of yore, it is not filled with quick cuts and shaky camera movement but is filmed so that audiences can actually see the fights.

Cathy Yan handles her directing duties really well considering that this is her first big budget film. She is without a doubt influenced by Asian cinema as can be seen in her action scenes and her sense of comedy. Now this may not sit well with Western audiences, but a lot of Asian Americans will get some of her jokes. The script is by Christina Hodson, who has worked on the critically acclaimed Black Mirror series and is also in on the joke apparently, being half Taiwanese herself. Yes, I am celebrating the fact that along with the inclusion of Ella Jay Basco, Asian representation is strong without pandering.

I was genuinely not interested all that much in this film other than maybe checking it out as a matinee. But after the guys over at the Nerds of Color podcast kept heaping praise on this film I was planning to check it out. But now that practically all movie theaters are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner released Birds of Prey as an early purchase digitally for immediate streaming. That is how I watched it and I have no regrets.

Birds of Prey is definitely not a typical comic book movie. Some may even call it a femme Deadpool lite. But that would be an oversimplification. It certainly does not follow a cookie cutter formula for the genre. It is, however, a fun film that knows not to take itself too seriously and is also self aware of the movie it is. It may not be for everyone, but I think it has the makings of a cult hit that will be more well received as time and people give it a chance.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

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So Spider-Man has always been Peter Parker, right? No? Okay, here we go.

Comic book universes are full of convoluted histories and some characters who have been around forever have been killed off, resurrected, rebooted and remade — it can drive casual fans mad. Marvel and DC have embraced the idea of multiverses for decades. Multiverses allow for different slants on the same characters. There is a universe where Gwen Stacy is bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. There is a universe where Miles Morales becomes a second Spider-Man. There is also a universe where Peter is an anthropomorphised spider who gets bitten by a radioactive pig, thus is born Peter Porker, Spider-Ham.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes these realities and combines them together into a wildly entertaining ride that only animation can accomplish. The main reality that we deal with is the world of Miles Morales a world in which not only is Peter Parker, still Spider-Man, but is beloved by the city. Miles is trying to cop with his new powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. He comes across the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker who is fighting bad guys who are bout to turn on a particle accelerator owned by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. The accelerator will tear time/space open and allow alternate realities to cross over. The reason Kingpin wants to do this is o bring back his dead wife and son. (The backstory of Kingpin’s wife is fairly convoluted but in this universe she and her son died from a car accident after finding out he was the Kingpin of crime in NY.)

Spider-Man ends up dying trying to save he city and Miles takes it upon himself to take on the mantle of Spider-Man. But the particle accelerator managed to work enough to bring across from the multiverse several different Spideys. Miles first meets Peter B. Parker, a Spider-Man from another reality where his life has failed him. He agrees to tutor Miles on being a superhero so that they can fix the crossed up universe. Along the way they will also encounter a noir Spidey, Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker who controls a Spidey-bot, and the aforementioned Spider-Ham. Together they must fix the rift in the realities or the multiverse will go kablooey.

The sub-plot to this is that Miles still must learn to control his new powers and reconcile his less than perfect relationship with his father, who not only is a police officer but dislikes Spider-Man and thinks of him as a vigilante. Yeah, his life is a little complicated.

The film quite a visual feast for the eyes and is in some ways revolutionary. Sure it is still CG, but there are instances of hand-drawn animation to it. There is a conscious effort to make scenes look like comic book panels, complete with thought balloons. Some of these stylistic choices were a little jarring at first for me as there were some scenes that looked out of focus in the foreground. I thought for a bit we were accidentally seeing the 3D version without glasses. I have been so conditioned for sharp and plastic skin looking CG animated films, it threw me off.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does not only a good job at being an animated film but also succeeds at being a good superhero film. It is, of course, not The Incredibles. It doesn’t try to be either. And with the success of this, it can hopefully pave the way for more animated adventures of Marvel characters on the big screen as opposed to the current trend of direct to video releases. DC, has been churning out quality animated (but direct to video) films for years. And to this day I still believe Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best Batman films ever, live action or animated. I’m still hopeful for adaptations of Squirrel Girl or the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. The good news though, is that a Spider-Gwen movie is in development with crossovers from Spider-Woman and Silk. So we have more Spider-Verse movies to look forward to.

Review: Aquaman is Glorious Trash

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Let’s be frank, Aquaman is not a very good move. DC/Warner’s latest attempt at making a good comic book movie starts out a little by the numbers. There is backstory on his parents and how he is half surface dweller, half Atlantean. His mother is a Princess of Atlantis found by a lighthouse keeper after a storm. They fall in love, have a kid and name him Arthur. She is taken back to Atlantis. He’s raised by his dad alone. One day he finds out he can talk to fish in a scene that reminds me of Harry Potter at the Zoo.

Flash forward post Justice League, and Arthur Curry, known as The Aquaman among seafarers is off doing his thing. He saves a Russian sub from pirates. Yeah, it will make sense later why pirates would attack a Russian sub. Not a lot, but it will.

After knocking back a few pints with his dad at a bar, he meets Mera, another princes from “Under the Sea, ” And yes, she has Ariel’s Red Hair from Little Mermaid. She basically says, “Hey your brother is a jerk and wants to wage war on the surface. You are actually the older one and have a claim to the throne, even if you are half human.”

 

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She neglects to mention that she is also engaged to him. But he must also fight his brother in ritual combat to claim the throne. Yeah, we’ve seen this in Black Panther, but this is underwater! Plus it uses a lot more CG. And they have an octopus playing drums. (The musically inclined octopus is in the comics by the way.) This is where I laughed out loud in the theater and figured out DC decided this is just going to be a silly trashy comic book movie. Never before in the modern DC movie era have the filmmakers embraced the silliness of a comic book movie as this has.

It’s a good thing too, because if this movie tried to take itself seriously it would be truly horrible. As it is, it’s full of cringe worthy dialog, flat generic characters, a convoluted story, and an obligatory fetch-it quest for a magical McGuffin. At the center of it is Jason Mamoa, who first got his big break in Stargate: Atlantis. With his “bro, I’m just here to have fun” performance, the film is a ride that takes us from one action scene to another. Amber Heard wavers from trying to be overly serious to eventually embracing the silliness of everything. She has a dress made from jellyfish, really. But she also gets to impale some bad guys with Italian wine.

Other actors seem wasted, however. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes a great Black Manta, unfortunately he’s a villain that is under utilized, and comes across as more of a set up for a return in a possible sequel. Patrick Wilson as King Orm, Aquaman’s younger Aryan brother is about as bland as they come. And Willem Dafoe, the biggest waste, is there as just a plot device as a mentor and to Arthur and a mole in Orm’s trust. It was fun to see Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus. He does come across as an old leader.

James Wan, as director, certainly uses a colorful pallet in creating the undersea world of not only Atlantis but other Kingdoms as well. And his action scenes are like Star Wars battle underwater. Well, it’s more like Star Wars battles than the last couple of Star Wars movies anyway. They is certainly a lot going on and I don’t even want to guess what the body count is during some of these fights.

There is a lot of Aquaman lore crammed into a two-and-a-half hour movie apparently. It certainly felt like it, but I’m no Aquaman expert. Perhaps they weren’t expecting a sequel. Despite how overly convoluted the movie is, it is full of action scenes that never become repetitive. And the underlying quest that Arthur has to undertake feels like a video game quest, going from one point of the globe to another and recovering clues.

So, no Aquaman is not a good movie. It’s a mess of popcorn trash. But it seems to know that it’s a silly movie and because of that, it is fun. It’s a visual feast of absolute junk food.