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: Joker is No Joke

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Be warned, Joker, directed by Todd Phillip’s, may be based on a comic book character that has had a long history in comics but on screen, but it will change the way you look at the character and the genre. If you had changed the names of some of the characters, the result would be a powerful modern noir film about a man’s fall from his already precarious grip on sanity to full chaotic madness. This is not a film for everyone and if you go in thinking it’s going to be some “comic book movie,” you may be off-put by it’s heavy nature and uncomfortable themes. Yet it is also an exemplary work of cinematic art.

When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he is a clown for hire. And in the opening scene he is one of those we most ignore on the street as we pass them by, someone holding a going out of business sign for a store. Nameless kids steal his sign and after a chase, they corner him and beat him up.  This is also our introduction to Gotham, a city that is reminiscent of the seedy streets of New York from the 70s and early 80s as portrayed in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But as a narrative, Scorsese’s King of Comedy is perhaps the biggest influence on Joker, as Arthur Fleck has spells of delusion where we glimpse into his imaginary world where he is accepted and even loved.

Gotham is a powder-keg city on the brink of exploding. Garbage is piling up on the streets because of a city-wide garbage strike. Unrest among the populace brews throughout the film as public tensions between the disenfranchised classes escalate steadily as the film progresses. There is rampant poverty and the Gotham itself is a decaying grimy city crowded with its own mad identity. Arthur Fleck may be insane, but so is the world around him.

Without a doubt, Arthur Fleck, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is the center of the film. It is not just a character piece, it is practically a one-man show. Sure there are other characters in it, but most of them are unnamed and just stepping stones towards his dark madness. Much of this is uncomfortable to watch as Phoenix’s portrayal of an already unsettled and unhealthy Arthur Fleck finds himself drowning in a system that has not only given up on him but the city as well. An early scene shows him with a social worker where it is revealed that he has already spent time in a mental institution, yet he can not answer the reason he was there in the first place. He is already on seven medications, yet he doesn’t feel it is doing anything for him. Later, city budget cuts will halt his sessions as well as his prescriptions. His social worker frankly tells him,”The city doesn’t give a shit about people like you. It doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”

The Joker is not just about the decay of a single human being but of a society. Society and and the uncaring system that created it let down not only a person that could have been helped but a city that could have been helped. And much of the the narrative displays that as Fleck’s personality spirals, so does the city as it become more violent and chaotic. And towards the end as the Joker is truly born, Gotham City becomes its most chaotic, reflecting the made state that Joker has now embraced.

This movie definitely has its violent moments but they are not, and I repeat, not, glorified or over the top like in Tarantino’s least violent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now some of the violence may be disturbing or even unsettling. Good. It’s supposed to be because you don’t want him to do it, yet he does. Even in one instance of self defense, you think he’s defending himself, but then he crosses the line beyond self defense.

Joaquin Phoenix crafts an amazing performance as the troubled Arthur Fleck. He initially starts off as an awkward and apprehensive character who seems harmless at first but unfortunately as he progresses and gains confidence, he is also progressing into his darker nature. It is certainly one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and I would be surprised if he does not get at least a nomination for an Academy Award.

Francis Conroy plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother who as we see in the very beginning is home bound and dependent on her son . And as it will be easy to see almost just as early on is not that mentally stable herself. She obviously does not have as much screen time as Phoenix, but her performance does stand out for its subtle nuanced portrayal of another troubled person.

Robert De Niro turns in his usually impressive performance as Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host who is very reminiscent of Johnny Carson, right down to the rainbow colored curtains and his Ed McMahan lookalike co-host.

As much as joker was planned as a standalone movie, almost to be seen as an Elseworlds tale, somehow they just could not leave the connection to Batman and the Wayne family out of it. There is a subplot involving Thomas Wayne, played by Brett Cullen that it works for the most part, especially as the Thomas Wayne comes across as a bit of a jerk. But frankly including Bruce Wayne as a child in the movie was not necessary.

Hildur Guðnadóttir composed a score that is both haunting and oppressive at times. AT times it feels like a score for a horror film as an atmosphere of dread haunts her score in anticipation of fell deeds. Cello solos are featured throughout as Guðnadóttir is herself a celloist who had worked on scores for Sicario, and also composed the score for its sequel Day of the Soldado

Todd Phillips knows how to direct drama well, considering this is his background has been in comedies such as The Hangover Trilogy. He certainly knows how to shoot his film and get everything he needs out of his actors. But his script and direction are not perfect. Much of the plot is predictable, especially when we know what the end result will be. There are a couple of double twists that work though. But the is also an unneeded shoe-horning of Batman lore in to the narrative.

Lawrence Sher’s cinematography can best be described as beautiful ugliness. The grime and worn look of locations and interiors look authentic for a world that is meant to look like it is rotting. Much of it is shot in real locations in New York and every stain of rust and hue of graffiti shows.

There has perhaps been too much talk about various controversies that are connected to this movie. From fears that it may inspire someone to go out and commit violent acts like a mass shooting or that it fuels the rage of incels, it seems as people were determined to see it fail for the sake of seeing it fail. In my opinion it does not do that. I would recommend not only seeing this film with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions of it being based on a comic book character, but to see it as a quality film. Comic fans may be disappointed. Good. They need their views challenged. I believe this film succeeds in challenging pre-conceived views of not just the Joker but comic book based movies. What Zack Snyder failed to do with his Ayn Rand influenced attempts at grim and dark deconstruction of Superheroes, Todd Phillips succeeds in his auteur deconstruction of a iconic villain. This movie is highly recommended.

Final Score: 8.5/10