Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Film Review: Birds of Prey

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Those familiar with this blog know that I am a passionate advocate for the DCEU.  I have defended Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League beyond what general movie-going audiences would.  I think that Suicide Squad and Aquaman are fun popcorn films and that Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene is one of the most iconic super hero moments ever captured on film.
And then we have Birds of Prey…  a complete failure of a film that doesn’t understand its source material or its audience.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)  takes place after the events of Suicide Squad.  The film begins with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being dumped by the never-seen-on-screen Joker. She still pretends to be with him so that she can still behave with absolute abandon and no one will cross her for fear of the Joker. But when she blows up one of his bases, it becomes clear that she is no longer under his protection. So anyone who has a grudge against her targets her.

What makes things more complicated is that this is not a Harley Quinn movie but a Birds of Prey movie. In addition to Harley, we are introduced to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is working as a bartender/singer for the crazy gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Also we have Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is tracking someone killing gansters, the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But the plot really kicks into gear when teenage theif Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), steals a diamond from Sionis' henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). If all of that sounds complicated, it is.

But the problem isn't that there is a complex plot. The problem is that the film makers have no idea how to create interest or balance in the story. Easily one of the most interesting characters in the movie is Huntress, but she has one of the smallest part. In fact, the first time all of the characters come together is in the third act. And by then, you'll find yourself not caring.

The fundamental issues is that the director Cathy Yan isn't really interested in making a fun, super hero film. Instead it wants to say something about men and women, while at the same time be a fourth-wall-breaking meta comedy like Deadpool. But that is an ambitious undertaking and Yan is clearly not up for the task.

Christina Hodson's screenplay fails to give us anything resembling a sympathetic lead character. Even Deadpool used its first act to show the tortured Wade Wilson become the Merc with a Mouth. Seeing his horrible pain, we immediately empathize and thus follow him even during his more morally questionable turns. But Harley is simply a woman who was dumped. And while that is a common experience, it isn't enough to follow her horrid violence. Early on, she spills a drink on a man. When he complains, she breaks his kneecaps. And the film makers don't seem to understand that this excess is actually repugnant.

They also don't have any idea how to write these characters. I understand that there have to be adjustments when adapting any character to the screen. And tweaking their circumstances can change how they behave. But all of the great texture of the source characters is lost in big broad strokes. In the comics, Zsasz is a fearsome psychopath on the level of Hannibal Lector. Here, he is just a thug. Sionis was originally written as a sophisticated, cold-blooded mob boss. Here he is insane like Joker-Lite. The worst example, though is Cassandra Cain. In the comics, she is someone who was raised by the world's greatest assassin who only really communicates through fighting. All of that uniqueness is tossed into the garbage can for some super-generic latch-key kid thief. What a waste!

As I said, Yan wants to say something about men and women. And that message comes down to this: men are awful. I wish there was more nuance than this, but there isn't. Every man, and I do mean EVERY man in the entire movie is awful. It was like Yan told every guy in the film, "Okay, in this scene, I want you to look smug and condescending because you are talking to a woman, and all men hate women." If you see this film, you will understand that this is not an exaggeration. A lot of movies can be critiqued for objectifying and demeaning women. But this feels like an over correction. Catholic teaching is clear that men and women, though clearly distinct, have equal dignity.

The performances are mostly awful. Robbie does all that she can with the material and her charisma is still there, but the character lacks any kind of humanity. As producer, I don't feel a lot of sympathy for Robbie, who could have given Harley more of a life. This might also be the worst performance of McGregor's career. Nothing he does is coherent. He plays everything in such utter broad strokes that he feels like a talking mime, over exaggerating every emotion to point where nothing he does seems genuine. In an age of CGI comic book villains, it is sad that Thanos came across as more human than Sionis. But again, Basco is the worst. She is a charisma black hole. I usually give younger actors more of a pass, but 90% of her performances is walking around with a slack-jawed, dull expression. She is the main person that brings the "heroes" together. But she is so unlikeable that you are half-tempted to root for the bad guys.

The only reason that this movie isn't a total waste is that some of the actions scenes are actually pretty awesome. I usually don't do behind-the-scenes research, but some of these scenes where such a jump start in quality that I was curious. It turns out that they got one of the John Wick directors to come in and spice up the film. And it shows. I do not know which scenes were handed off, but when Harley breaks into the police station, there is a noticeable change in style when she frees the prisoners from their cells. From there, the action the movie actually becomes fun and I was hopeful this was a turning point for the rest of the film.

Alas no.

The film itself is also ugly. The production design lacks the complete flair for the over-the-top like Tim Burton's Batman, nor does it have the gritty realism of Nolan's Dark Knight series. It doesn't have to be either of those extremes, but it never finds its visual style. And on a personal note, the choices of jewelry in the nose, eyebrows, and the like served more to distract than to anything else.

The movie remains a failure. In fact, calling it a movie is a bit generous. It is a scream caught on film. And that is not a fun time at the theater.

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