Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

If ever a film announced itself as a feminist battle cry for comic book respect, “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is the title they would probably choose. The idea here is to liberate not only Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, but every woman in the world from the patriarchal culture that they are being choked to death in. I think it’s great that there is a comic book figure that is empowering to women, I just am a little concerned that they have to be murdering sociopaths. “Deadpool” seems like a caricature of super heroes, with his nihilistic humor and snarky social commentary. “Harley Quinn” is supposed to be taken differently, but I’m not sure how, and we may have skipped the part that is being parodied.

I thought the quick telling of her backstory and the break up with her relationship to the Joker was clever. There is a combination of flashbacks, cartoons and first person narration that gets us through this relatively quickly and with some efficiency. The same efficiency does not apply to the secondary women in the story who need to be liberated as well. Detective Montoya gets ignored by the idiot men around her, multiple times, and it is only when she is egregiously second-guessed and suspended, in the mode of every movie cop trope you can find except the partner who dies, that she sees the need for some liberation. “The Huntress” is an assassin with a mission, who is saved as a child by a bad man who deposits her with other bad men to make her badass, but those menĀ  disappear twenty seconds after her story is recounted. She has always been alone except for the gangster father she wants to avenge. So I guess what she needs to be liberated from is the family stricture that requires her to operate on a blood debt. “Black Canary” need to be liberated from the clutches of a man who sees her as a possession and doesn’t recognize her worth. He treats her as a slave and she acts the part really well.

The other female character in the story is a neighborhood girl who has parents that argue while she hones her skills as a thief and pick-pocket. She is already liberated from any sense of right or wrong, so I guess she is supposed to be a role model for the suppressed women in the story and a chip off of the Harley Block. The reality is that the film stacks up so many straw men [that is an intentional double meaning] that the films sense of justice feels manufactured and that undermines the main point. I’m probably taking this too seriously, some of you are muttering to yourselves right now “it’s just a comic book movie”. It is just a comic book movie which is why all the other stuff is standing in the way.

Margot Robbie made this character her own in “Suicide Squad” back in 2016, and it is no surprise here that she is the main draw. The problem is that a little of the character goes a long way, but we get a lot of the character and it makes her distinctiveness feel littler. From an action point of view, the fight scenes and shootouts are staged in a visually arresting manner but sometimes there is a little too much layered on top, For instance, every scene depicting women kicking men’s asses, is accompanied by an empowering hard rock song about the power of bad ass women. It underlines, puts it in bold and points at it in such an obvious way that the action sometimes feels less organic to the events in the story and simply one more place to pump up the girl power.

In addition to overselling Harley, the make her antagonist feckless. He is a villain who is so narcissistic, that much like Kylo Ren, he has a superfluous mask simply to draw attention to himself. It literally serves no other function, since everyone including the police know that he is “Black Mask”. Ewan McGregor squawks and screams through the role as if he is Al Pacino playing the Joker. His only super power appears to be reckless inflated opinion of himself. What value is there in a heroine who takes down this pile of nothingness?

I like the production design when the characters are on the streets battling it out, and there is a funky set that is the location for the climax confrontation which was fun. I probably sound silly complaining about the cartoonish characters when we are talking about a movie that is a cartoon, but there was never a time I thought the women leads were in jeopardy. Harley by herself repeatedly takes out squads of hulking henchmen, so why would we worry about the outcome when she has four backup players to fight a small army?

Truth be told, I found the movie entertaining on a simplistic level. If we have to choose between the sets of characters on the screen, of course we are going to root for the women. It just lacks the kind of balance that would make the film feel substantive, and you can tell that it wears its ideology on it’s sleeve. That detracts a little from the fun, but it also makes the value of that ideology feel cheap.

Doctor Sleep

Thirty-five years ago, someone created a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, using material from the original author of the piece. It seemed foolish to try to ride the tailcoats of Kubrick’s Masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey“, but “2010: The Year We Make Contact” was not a disaster and it did make a little money. Well, writer/director Mike Flanagan has attempted the same feat. Kubrick’s “The Shining” had a sequel written for it by original author Stephen King, and that story has been adapted to make this sequel almost forty years later.

“Doctor Sleep” is substantially different in tone from “The Shining”. The single location of the first film made it feel like a Gothic haunted house story, although there are many elements of the “shine” that are present. King was famously dissatisfied with the Kubrick approach. While I never read the novel, I suspect his unhappiness stemmed from the minimal relationship of the psychic ability of Danny Torrance to the film story. That may in fact be why King returned to the characters, so that he could elaborate on the mystery of “Shining” and not simply be trapped in the haunted hotel.

This story does start off at the time of the original events, and there are a couple of moments recreated for the prologue, but we quickly move forward thirty years to Danny Torrance as an adult. He is a troubled man who has been haunted by the spirit of the house that he feels has pursued him over the years. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny and he wanders aimlessly until another spirit visits him and he commits to a fresh start with new friends and no chemical solutions to his anxiety. As his story is playing out we are introduced to a new group of people who seem to thrive on those that shine. At first it is unclear whether they are spirits or something else. Ultimately, this group of wanderers lead by the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson, turns out to be the antagonists in a deadly hunt of those who can “shine” and those who use the shiners for their own purposes. It’s basically a vampire story with creatures that are human but who have supernatural abilities. It certainly is a horror story, but it is not the slow burn descent into madness that the original focused on.

The strengths of the story ,as told in the film, are first and foremost McGregor, who has to be desperate, sometime despicable and ultimately re-deemed. The character is strongest in the scenes where he is working as an orderly in a hospice, and conversing with those who are soon making the trip to the other side. He develops the sympathy and heroic nature that he will need when the story leads him to direct confrontation. Cliff Curtis, a familiar supporting actor and welcome presence helps steady Danny in the road to empowering his Shining Skills. Inevitably there is a figure that brings the two sides into conflict. I won’t spoil the horror for you but suffice it to say, it involves children, and that is introduced as a theme early on but taken to it’s most horrifying place mid-way through the film.

Modern film techniques allow directors to do things that seem physically impossible. The CGI moments remind us of that impossibility. That is one of the reasons that practical effects are so important, because they tie a sense of reality to the impossible. Two sequences in the film took be out of the story a bit because of the computer work. One involves a young girl rotating a house and levitating, this was preceded by an episode with spoons years earlier. Both of these moments would have worked more in a frightening way if they had more practical elements to them. “Shining” moments are less problematic because we are in a fantasy world at that point so the lack of reality is less egregious.

Just like how 2010 took the metaphysical world of it’s predecessor and moved it into a traditional political conflict, FlanaganĀ  and King take the supernatural horror from the first story and turn it into an action story, and it works. There are moments of horror in this film that are shocking for sure but it will be most noted for the game playing being done by two sides that we get to understand pretty well. It feels like an adaption of a complex universe that has been created in a book, and I think it is largely successful at turning that material into something cinematic.