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 men  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.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I came to this film with the highest of expectations. It was my most anticipated film of this year, the trailer is fantastic and it covers a period of time that I lived through and remember. The subject of the movie is Hollywood itself and it’s made by Quentin Tarantino. Through the roof were my hopes for the film. Let me preface my more in-depth comments by saying first that I loved the movie, but in total, there are issues and my expectations may have hindered some of my reaction to the movie in both positive and negative ways. As always, this is a personal reflection of how I saw the elements coming together, your mileage may vary.

The best thing you can do for yourself in seeing this film is not to read anything about it beforehand. I’m not simply talking about spoilers, I’m really referring to the impressions that people will have and the surprise that comes from the discovery of what this movie really is. I stayed away from every review and every press release about the movie. It was impossible to avoid some things but I lucked out in that no one revealed how this movie really develops. This is a warning: While I will avoid spoilers, to discuss this film requires that certain concepts be explained and that may inhibit your own reaction to the movie. Proceed with caution or come back after you have seen it.

Tarantino makes movies that are a little bit like a buffet. There are dozens of things to choose from when you want to focus on them, but if you don’t have a plan, you may miss something important, or worse, you can mix dessert choices that simply don’t pair well. From my point of view, he has lingered over some aspects of the film too long and not offered a main course that is fully satisfying. However, the side dishes are solid and the main confection that comes at the end of the story makes the whole thing worth taking in. I notice that many of the people I follow have done rankings of the Tarantino catalog as part of the process of discussing the movie and it seems fitting to offer a little bit of insight in that direction here. Without giving you a complete nine film ranking, I can say that this movie is better in my opinion than “The Hateful Eight” and “Deathproof” but it does not quite scale the heights of “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglorious Basterds”. So that may be an indicator of my tastes and a way for you to measure the film as a consequence.

The three main actors all are terrific but the standout for me is Brad Pitt. As Cliff Booth, the stunt double/gofer to DiCaprio’s Western TV Star Rick Dalton, Pitt gets to be amused, sardonic, detached and invested in a lot of different scenes. His back story is completely unnecessary to the plot but as a character point it is interesting. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Tarantino adds to his stories all of the time. The existence of the scene where he faces off against Bruce Lee only means something at the end of the movie and that may be one of those points that you can see coming and that I am hesitant to get into too much detail about. The same is true of his home life with his pit bull Brandy. There will be a payoff down the road and we can see that something is coming but we don’t know exactly what. Brad Pitt’s best scene however may be a long sequence at the Spahn Ranch, where he encounters something that makes him extremely suspicious and sets up another pay off later on. Although there is a dialogue with two central characters in the sequence, it is really just his facial expressions and general demeanor that makes Pitt sparkle in these scenes.

DiCaprio has a less flashy role here than he did in “Django Unchained“, his previous film with Tarantino. His best moments are on the set of a television show he is guesting on, with a conversation between himself and a young actor (because the word actress is meaningless) and also a conversation he has with himself. In previous films by Tarantino, there is a heavy emphasis on language and conversation. Jules and Vincent are compelling because of the way they take mundane subjects and treat them seriously. Col. Landa hoovers over the conversations he has with the French Dairy Farmer, Shoshanna in her disguise and Lt. Aldo Raine, as if he is a vulture looking for a scrap of dialogue he can rip out and feast on. In “Reservoir Dogs” the opening sequence debating tipping is magnetic. Unfortunately, there is nothing that rises to those heights in this film. The one place that Tarantino may have matched his earlier high standards is in the employment of violence in key moments of the film.

There has been some on-line criticism of the shortage of dialogue for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. There is an explanation for this but again, let me warn you, it’s not a spoiler but it will alter your perception of the story...she is a red herring.  Polanski and Tate are peripheral to what the ultimate outcome is. If that sounds strange because you thought this was a film about the Manson Murders, well, be ready for that Tarantino twist. This is a wish fulfillment fairy tale, in the mode of his best film in my opinion “Inglorious Basterds”.  The movie takes us down a path of detailed history about Hollywood in 1969, and at the last minute rewrites it. The details up to the climax are all presented honestly, mixed with the fictional story of the declining career of Rick Dalton, but then there is a sharp right turn. Most of his work before this could be classified as revenge film cinema, and this will neatly fit into that classification.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie made everything that was overly long and unfocused in the first two hours irrelevant. Maybe the foreplay was inelegant and slow. It does not matter when the climax is so satisfying that you want to stand up and cheer even though you are witnessing a violent fiction. We want the scum that the Manson Family was, to get the retribution that they so richly deserve and society has denied. We want the sweet Sharon Tate and her innocent friends to be spared from the gruesome history we know exists. We want Rick Dalton to emerge from the crumbling Hollywood system that is taking down his career with some dignity and the hope that things will be better. And we want all of that with the signature overkill that Tarantino employs in most of his movies. This is not a genre take off like Django or Kill Bill and DeathProof. This is an original film that uses our willingness to suspend disbelief to get a result that we dream would be the truth.

I’m going back to see this again on Friday, and I plan on posting a second version of this review in video form. In that I will get into the technical pleasures of the movie and the historical context that made it so enticing for me. For now I will simply say that the movie turns what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. It’s a great magic trick, but it does take a while to play out.

I, Tonya (Updated)

The problem with doing your top ten for the year before Midnight on December 31st is that you could see something that would force you to adjust your list. That’s exactly what’s happened with this film, and now I have to revise the video and post that I had planned for tomorrow.  Since it is late on New Years Eve, and my tail end is dragging from a outdoor project I worked on today, I will ask your indulgence and tell you that you have to wait for the full review until later. However, my comments here should make it perfectly clear how I feel about this film.

Till tomorrow then my friends.

 

UPDATE

So it took a little longer to get back to this than I’d hoped but it is still worth it. This is a film that deserves to be talked about. To start with, I remember the events that this film covers in vague outline form. Many people watched it closely but our lives were taking dramatic new directions 24 years ago so it was not a daily download for me as it was for so many others in that period of time. As a soap opera in real life it was compelling, but my recall of all of it was that a bunch of stupid people were involved in doing something stupid, which happened to be taking place on the world stage.
The movie claims to be based on interviews with various participants in the whole affair, and when they all agree on the events, that’s how they are depicted on screen. There are however wild divergences in how the story plays out, and what screenwriter Steven Rogers does in those instances is contrast the two versions with slightly different emphasis and typically a great deal of humor. It seems apparent to me that in the long run he does come down on the side of Tonya Harding herself. When it comes to credibility, although she does not seem very reliable, in contrast to everyone else telling their version of the story, she is the voice of reason. Her husband/ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, is as unreliable a person as you are likely to ever see in a film much less meet in real life. As portrayed by Sebastian Stan, he seems ineffectual and pathetically needy. He is also an abusive spouse who strikes out in a way that most of us would see is a problem from the beginning, but that based on Harding’s life, might simply be a minor character flaw which can be forgiven. Since there was a record of what was said between him and his dim witted friend, the “bodyguard” Shawn, it seems that the only intelligent thing he did in the whole process was cut himself off from Shawn at the set up arranged by the FBI.
Harding’s status as an athlete in the world of competitive Ice Skating is vividly realized with true discomfort as we see the elitism and snobbery that she faces despite being the most physically talented woman on the ice. At the end of the film there are clips of the interviews used to put the story together with many of the actual people involved[not Tonya herself]. When you see the clip with LaVona Golden, Tonya’s Mother, you will see the true genius of Allison Janney’s performance. That woman was a nut job and the number she did on her kid had to have been something. Again, this is Tonya’s version of events that drives that part of the story but it explains the chip on her shoulder and the willingness to put up with abuse for far too long. Janney is always a welcome performer in any film I see. She is dead eyed and without redemption as LaVona. The same “damn the consequences to hell with you” self centeredness displayed by Francis McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is present here. Janney is willing to play the most unlikable character in a manner that is based in the reality that the character doesn’t give a f##k what anybody else thinks. That has got to be a freeing experience for an actor and she makes the most of it.
The performance that stands out the most of course is the title character played by Margot Robbie. Costuming and hair-styling accomplish a lot, but the range of the performance goes well beyond that. The two girls who were the younger versions of Tonya were both excellent and they set up this character as much more sympathetic than you would ever have believed. When Robbie steps into the fifteen year old Tonya’s skates, she has to be proficient at skating, angry at perceived injustice,  and resentful of the way that the world demands a hero and a villain in this sort of competition. Her desperation at the sentencing after all the events take place feels like the most authentic human moment that Harding had in the film. In all that precede this moment, Robbie was chillingly direct. This one counter-point shows how broad her emotional vocabulary is and it makes the other moments in the film feel more important as a consequence. Of course she did not learn to do the triple axle, but Director Craig Gillespie, manages with technical prowess to make you think she did.
This is a serious biopic about a much derided pop culture figure that also happens to be hysterically funny. You probably would not imagine yourself feeling much empathy for the central figure at the start of all this, but by the end, you hope her version, as sad as it is, is the most accurate. You also hope her life has gotten better, because despite being the greatest woman ice skater in the world at one point, her life pretty much sucked up to the “incident” and after that, it did not get much better. The two women’s performances are awards bait, but the film deserves to be seen as worthy also. This was a real surprise and a pleasant one despite the tawdry topic.

 

Suicide Squad

I’m not a comics guy as I’m sure I’ve said a couple of times before. My guess is that the number of people like me, those who will see a comic based movie without knowing the whole cannon, outnumber the people who can tell you that the eye-shadow on the Joker is inconsistent with the history established in volume 274 of the Dark Knight Series 3 featuring the four fingered Joker variation (or some such detail).  In other words, I’m not so invested in the characters that I can’t handle change. There was a lot of talk when this film was being produced about whether it could meet the fans expectations. Other than Harley Quinn and the Joker, I’ve never heard of any of these characters, so maybe my opinion will be discounted by some because I am not invested. As the summer season came on, the buzz was that “Suicide Squad” would be the film to make the comic book fans happy. When the first reviews started coming in, there was a stampede of disappointment and negative word of mouth started to set in. From many of the critics, you would think this film was a bomb. The box office so far has to be comforting to the film makers in spite of the poor notices. But, from the view of this outsider, the film is largely successful in what it is attempting, and suffers from the same problem that all big action films do, a weak antagonist makes a weaker story.

 

We are fortunate that we do not have to wade through a series of stand alone films to be set up in this universe. The first half hour or so of the movie, inventories the characters, highlights their quirks, and establishes personality for them very effectively. These small vignettes are probably the most effective sequences in the movie. I will say that it was a bit of a give away that one member of the team is introduced when they are put together and there was no B Roll on their character in the first section. So guess which character will be sacrificed to show that the secret government agency in charge means business. There has also been talk that Jared Leto’s Joker has been significantly excised from the film, that seems to be a lot of hot air. The Joker Character figures in one of the background stories, participates in a parallel story, and is part of the coda of the film. It is true he is not on the team, but that does not mean that his presence is insignificant.  Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn will certainly be the breakout character in the film and she can expect to explode in the business over the next few years. Miss Robbie is extremely watchable and carries off her part here with great panache.

 

Let’s discuss a couple of weaknesses of the film. It turns out that the Big Bad the group has to face is created by the attempt to create the group in the first place. All of the characters are given such menacing  back stories that the quickness with which the authorities try to establish a working team seems unrealistic ( as if anything in this didn’t already). There are a couple of actions that have to be done by the team that seem unnecessary, including the rescue of an unidentified figure at ground zero of the main fracas. It also makes no sense that the plan of action being followed involves a simple explosive device, when the secondary antagonist seems to be impervious to other weapons. Also, the idea that it could take out a member of the team also seems inconsistent with what has been established earlier. In other films, the duo of Jai Courtney and Joel Kinnaman would threaten to but me to sleep. Both of these guys have been charisma free in other films, but this time around they get a chance to shine a little and Courtney especially makes a favorable impression.

The main villain seems a bit of a stretch, but in the D.C. Universe they are working at creating, maybe it is plausible. The representation however is so horror film fetish bound that it looks ridiculous. At the climax of the film, the bad guy is basically doing the most stupid voodoo dancing and arm waving this side of the 1976 remake of King Kong.  The problem that happens when you give a character powers to make them a worthy opponent is that you also have to find a flaw that gives the heroes (sic) a chance. Things did not come together well in this regard and the confrontation feels like a giant CGI smackdown without much credibility.

The soundtrack is packed with music from the last fifty years so there will be plenty that audiences can relate to, although sometimes the choices seem a little hokey. The color palate of the film is neon without becoming overly cliched and tiresome. There is also a lot more humor in this film than the two films that preceded it in the MCU queue. There are some very clear tie ins to this years Batman v. Superman and Bruce Wayne has a couple of scenes that tie it together even more. Viola Davis is a stone cold hard ass as Amanda Waller, the covert intelligence officer responsible for the team.  There is a point where Will Smith’s Deadshot asks facetiously, “and we’re supposed to be the bad guys?”, it is Waller’s character that he is referring to. So I’m down with the characters and the performances for the most part. I also think the movie looks very solid. Where they lost me was in creating an obstacle for the team to overcome. It feels a bit too overheated. It may not be the widespread opinion, but I think this film is fine and it accomplishes what is needed, a set of premises for the film and an outrageous team being put together in a reasonable manner. Now all Ben Afflect has to do as Batman, is repeat the process, only recruit the Justice League members with a bit more elegance. Ignore the bad word, it’s a solid film with some flaws but also a lot going for it.

 

 

 

The Legend of Tarzan

As a character, Tarzan has been around for more than a hundred years. He is nearly as old as another literary creation of the era, Sherlock Holmes. It was inevitable I suppose that with the new digital technology at their fingertips, someone was going to do a new version of the Tarzan story. Robert Downey Jr. gets to be Ironman and Sherlock Holmes, but the new millennium and the nature of the character probably suggest that the new Tarzan be a different face, an actor who is competent but not well established as a star.  Enter Alexander Skarsgård, a handsome man with solid credits on high quality television programs and some supporting parts in other films. This is his chance to step up and become a star, if he can manage to sell us on the idea that he is an enlightened British Lord who started his life as an adopted member of a troop of Great Apes. It’s a tall order to fill but he manages to do a credible job for a couple of reasons. First of all, Tarzan is not a character known for eloquence. He is not unsophisticated because as Lord Greystoke, he is a member of the House of Lords, but as the child of a savage world without humans for the most part, he has learned to communicate in subtle, non-verbal ways. Skarsgård, may have the fewest lines of the four major characters in the film, but it is not really noticeable because he says so much with his actions. Second, he is a close doppelganger for the young version of Christopher Lambert, who made his debut on the international film stage in the same character vehicle.

In a way, his resemblance to Lambert connects the two films that were made 32 years apart. Had “Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” been a bigger success, this could easily have been the follow up film. A large section of the 1984 film, was devoted to the origin story of Tarzan. This film pays homage to that story but does not make it the focal point of the film. The structure of “The Legend of Tarzan” is mostly a straightforward narrative with occasional flashback sequences to provide exposition and context. It’s a rather effective way of including the origin story without belaboring it. As a result, this movie feels fairly fresh and works as a stand alone episode in the story of our jungle pulp hero. The difference in tone is important. Unlike the Johnny Weissmuller films, which are  somewhat campy adventure stories, the Greystoke film of 84 sought to probe more deeply into what distinguishes man from beast. It had a solemn message about the savagery of colonial times but also about the duality of Lord Greystoke/Tarzan. This film touches ever so briefly on the later and spends most of it’s time on the former. The plot concerns the exploitation of Africa bu European powers that are willing to use unscrupulous methods to achieve their objectives. Naturally, Tarzan stands in the way. Some of the 50s and 60s version of the Tarzan tale told the same kind of story.  “The Legend of Tarzan” takes the colonial period in Africa and uses it much like a James Bond thriller, with a plot to enslave a whole country by an evil figure being thwarted by our hero, while at the same time he saves the woman he loves. It’s pretty good stuff but not very deep.

 

The three other main characters also bring something to the table that make this version of the legend even more successful. Quinton Taratino’s favorite German actor of the last decade, is cast in another villainous role. After “Inglorious Basterds”, he has been the heavy in a half dozen films. Most recently Christoph Waltz was the featured antagonist of James Bond in SPECTRE.  I’m fine with him collecting a paycheck but I hope he is able to expand his resume a little more. In this movie he is Leon Rom, an envoy of the King of Belgium, tasked with gaining access to the riches of the Congo, and using a plot against Lord Greystoke to do so. His scenes with Tarzan’s mate when she is his prisoner, have a suitably creepy tone to them. There is one good moment where his eyes and voice express admiration for Jane, and for a moment he feels like a human and not just a cardboard bad guy, although he plays that cliched role well. Margot Robbie seems to have come out of nowhere in the last couple of years and is on the verge of exploding into mega stardom, if she can act as well as she looks a part. She will soon be Harley Quinn in a series of D.C. comic book movies and that will add fuel to the fire of her career.In this film she was solid. There was a great degree of sexual chemistry between her and Skarsgård. Tarzan and Jane look and sound like a couple who are in love and actually care about one another. Each is given an opportunity to show the desire they have for their partner in a non-lascivious way. She also gets some action scenes and as the dialogue intentionally lampoons, she is not just a damsel in distress.

The final major star of the film is somewhat surprising. What Samuel L. Jackson is doing in this film is not entirely clear. A black Doctor, as an envoy from the government of the United States personally selected by President Benjamin Harrison, he is an anachronism that defies story telling with one exception, he brings his personality to the movie. Jackson is a frequent spark plug for a moment of humor or dramatic intervention in the film. Amazingly enough, he manages to do this without once using the word that he is the foremost practitioner of in movie dialogue. It is frequently said that Samuel L. Jackson simply plays Samuel L. Jackson when he is cast, but I see differences in his tone and personality from film to film that do make his characters more distinctive. Just as in “The Hateful Eight”, he is a Civil War veteran in this movie. Major Marcus Warren was a malevolent and hateful character, but George Washington Williams is sad and hopeful. The way he handles his six guns in this movie are completely different that the Tarantino chamber piece from last Christmas. The tone here is light and fun and he seems to care for humanity rather than despise it. I think you have to be a pretty good actor to sell the misanthrope of last year and the heroic side kick in this picture. Jackson does so and the movie benefits as a result. 

The look of the film is accomplished, blending CGI jungles and mountains with real backgrounds to effectively give the movie a sense of scope. Director David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potter films, is accomplished at moving exposition along with the action. That ability serves him well with this picture. While I might still prefer the Rick Baker ape make-up and costumes, the CGI animals in this film are impressive and make the impossible possible on film. I could have used more practical vine swinging, the CGI in these sequences draws attention to itself, but most modern audiences will accept it easily. 

I really wanted this film to be good, but after an early trailer, I thought it might end up as a special effects laden mess. I was pleasantly surprised and quite pleased with the results. I was out of town last week when it opened and I tried not to read anything about it. I did hear a few positive words from some media sources but they only raised my fear threshold. As it turns out, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a respectable addition to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs on film and a mid summer treat that I would encourage anyone to see, but especially those who like the pulp characters of the past and want to see them live on to the future.