Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Birds of Prey is a movie I have wanted to see for a very, very long time. I think we are way overdue for an action movie led by a female cast and I’m thrilled that it is as good as it ought to be. The film has a scrappy, can-do vibe populated by vivid characters who are very well cast. The action scenes, and there are plenty, are a lot of fun and I didn’t really feel like there was a wasted moment. I love this movie.

Margot Robbie returns as the Joker’s ex-flame Harley Quinn who, after breaking up with her psychotic boyfriend, discovers the only reason nobody tried to kill her before was because of fear of the Joker’s reprisals. Now that she is on her own, she finds she has a huge target on her back. Ewan MacGregor plays crime boss Ramon Sionis, aka Black Mask, who is especially interested in killing Quinn until she makes a deal to get him a diamond he is anxious to possess but has been stolen by street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Also in the mix are Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Valerie Bertinelli/Huntress and Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, plus Chris Messina in a surprising turn as Sionis’ sadistic henchman, Mr. Zsasz.

The storyline, narrated by Harley Quinn, jumps back and forth in time, breaking up a straightforward McGuffin-hunt into entertaining sections that give each character enough backstory for us to actually care about them and understand their motivations (a rare thing in superhero movies). Christina Hodson’s script is very ably brought to life by Cathy Yan’s direction and the actors are all great. I thought everyone was terrific in their roles, especially MacGregor who threatens to steal every scene he is in. Jurnee Smollet-Bell was a real discovery here for me; I thought she did a great job with Dinah Lance/Black Canary. I also loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her super-seriousness which everyone makes fun of.

This movie, along with Joker, Shazam! and Wonder Woman, is a great example of why I prefer DC to Marvel. DC has had more than their share of missteps, but I appreciate the unpredictability of their movies over the tedious formula used over and over by Marvel. Birds of Prey is definitely for mature audiences, not only for the frequent salty language but also the bone-crunching and bloody violence on display. It also treats its sexual politics with a knowingly serious but deftly light touch, which I really appreciated.

Birds of Prey is the first movie of 2020 I was seriously looking forward to and it did not disappoint. The production design is colourful yet gritty, the characters well-served by a good script and great casting and the action is a lot of fun to watch. I found myself laughing more than I expected and, although it does get a bit silly in places, it’s no different from other films in the superhero genre in that regard. I never felt insulted by what I was watching and I will certainly be seeing it again.

Bravo!

Trailer

Review: Black Mirror – Season 5

I love Black Mirror and have been a fan ever since discovering it around season 3. The show is dark and twisted but also has its lighter moments and the three new episodes that constitute season 5 are exemplary of the show’s varied imagination.

Striking Vipers is a story about two friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reunite after years apart and bond over a sophisticated VR fighting game which soon becomes a conduit for unrequited feelings the two friends have. I was genuinely surprised by the early twist in the storyline and I really appreciated its maturity and sensitivity in dealing with the subject matter. I also loved the ending.

In Smithereens, Andrew Scott plays a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown who takes hostage an employee of the tech giant behind Persona, a Facebook-like social media platform, demanding to have a phone call with its Zuckerberg-esque creator. I found it struck an astounding balance between tragedy and comedy, making me laugh out loud several times as well as shed a tear at one point.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too features Miley Cyrus as a pop sensation whose new AI doll becomes the prized possession of Angourie Rice’s Rachel, but her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) has concerns about its influence. This episode is much more light-hearted in its execution, even if it has some dark material, striking and almost Scooby-Doo vibe at times, but I found it quite fun and well-earned after the seriousness of the previous two episodes. Plus, it gave me a new respect for Miley Cyrus.

Black Mirror is probably my favourite TV show. I love how intelligent and mature it is and how the series is more about quality than quantity, as each season is pretty short. The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is its anthology nature. Every episode is its own self-contained story and you can start anywhere; the quality is such that you will know in one or two episodes if this show is for you or not. Personally, I love it.

Review: Russian Doll

Twisty, funny, very smart and unexpectedly touching

I’m a little late to the party, but I just discovered this miniseries on Netflix and I really loved it. Eight episodes of 24-30 minutes each makes the complex story manageable and I found it very funny, a little on the dark side, with a lot of intelligence and heart. It obviously takes a lot from Groundhog Day but adds a neat twist which gives it an identity of its own. The writing, the acting, the whole production are all excellent and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys weird stories with interesting and unusual characters.

Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a name which is so loaded with metaphors I could spend a whole paragraph on it. The show begins with her in the bathroom at a birthday party thrown for her by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) where she is not having a good time. Nadia is a deeply unhappy person prone to self-destructive behaviour and is struck by a car and killed while trying to find her cat in the local neighbourhood, only to find herself back in the bathroom at her birthday party where it all began. She goes on with her evening and the next day but when she dies again and finds herself in the bathroom once more, she realizes she is stuck in some kind of time loop. The twist comes when she then she discovers there is another person trapped in the same loop, Alan (Charlie Barnett). Together, they have to find a way out.

This is some really inventive stuff rom the creative minds of Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne. I don’t want to give away too much because the real joy in the series is discovery; this is the kind of show that rewards you for paying close attention to every detail. Every episode turns in subtle and different ways that balance both the fantasy aspect of the plot and the deep characterization of the leads. I found it very refreshing in terms of casting and how the characters were written and acted, with tragedy and comedy in equal measure. It’s very impressive, the kind of stuff you don’t see very often.

Film Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse

Best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2

Sony Animation has produced this slick piece of eye-popping animation that is a lot of fun to watch. I found it to be tremendously entertaining, fun and funny but with emotional weight where it needed it. I think it is the best Spider-Man movie since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

One of the many things I loved about this film was how progressive and positive it was. The whole film really captures the essence of Spider-Man in ways that pretty much every other film in the past 14 years has failed to do, and Spidey is a relentlessly positive, optimistic character despite his tragic origins and his outsider status. This movie captures the correct tone to convey that spirit while also being a lot of colourful fun, just like the title character.

The story here centers on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a New York teenager who somehow gets bitten by the same (or similar) spider as the one that bit Peter Parker. The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is the main villain of the piece whose experimental particle collider creates a crossover of parallel universes that delivers different versions of Spider-Man from those worlds into ours before it is damaged in a fight that kills our resident Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The multiple versions of Spider-Man have to work together to find a way to get back to their own universes and then destroy the collider before it destroys everything. Along the way, Miles faces challenges and comes to terms with the responsibility of being Spider-Man.

First and foremost, I loved the animation. That was the principle thing that got me interested, because I am very unimpressed by most animation for its lack of novelty. Rarely does an animated film present a style that I haven’t seen before, but I really think this movie did show me something new. I loved the characterizations of everyone, particularly Miles, but I also really liked Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as his peer support. I thought Nic Cage was an unexpected pleasure as Spider-Man Noir from a hard-boiled 1930s universe and I have always loved Spider-Ham, who I was afraid would be just a sight gag but turned out to be a fun side-character.

In a lot of ways the movie reminded me of the Lego Batman Movie. It has a very similar sensibility of reverence as well as humour about the legacy of the character. I think Spider-Man’s appeal is in his misfit status and the total anonymity of the suit – anybody could be under the red and blue spandex, and that is what a lot of the movie’s underlying substance is about. It’s part of the reason why the film has so many different versions of the character and gives us the lesser-known Miles Morales as our central protagonist instead of the familiar Peter Parker. I found the story quite soulful in its presentation of what it means to be a hero – it’s not the suit, its the person wearing it and the choices he or she makes. I found the movie unexpectedly moving in parts, much like Spider-Man 2, and its closing coda by Stan Lee about heroism was very touching in light of the man’s passing earlier this year.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it has to do with the presentation in 2D. I haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse in 3D but I would like to despite my overall misgivings about the medium. I think the cityscapes and web-swinging could be enhanced by the 3D, but what bugged me about 2D was that a lot of backgrounds had a blurry look like I was watching a 3D movie without glasses (except the foreground characters were clear), almost as if the studio did a half-assed job of making a 2D version.

I really loved Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse a lot more than I tought I would. I laughed out loud many times and I appreciated its sense of Spider-Man lore, not just in the easter eggs sprinkled throughout for hardcore fans to giggle over, but for its authentic understanding of what the character means and stands for across multiple interpretations. An amazing movie.

Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix)

I wouldn’t normally think of watching something so apparently aimed at the YA market as this Netflix Original series, except that it is filmed in Vancouver and, as a Production Assistant, it’s possible I might work on it someday, so I might as well be familiar with it. I was quite surprised by how dark and mature it was, given the audience it is aimed at, and I find something delightfully subversive in that.

This is absolutely nothing like the 90s tv show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, despite their common origins in the world of Archie Comics. The whole approach is rather more horror-inflected than its sitcom predecessor, and it is very dark and very gory, yet the show does have its laughs and never feels heavy. There is a lot of Satanism, witchcraft and demonology in the show, far more than I expected, and it is really quite thrilling to see series protagonists casually say things like “Hail, Satan” in a big-budget, mainstream series aimed at a younger audience.

The writing I think is very good, balancing light and dark pretty well, and I think the cast is excellent. Kiernan Shipka is a decent lead as Sabrina Spellman, half-breed daughter of a warlock and a mortal, playing things competently straight while everyone around her is dancing on the edge of camp, at least as far as Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis as her aunts Zelda and Hilda are concerned, to say nothing of Richard Coyle as Father Faustus Blackwood (that name alone is awesome), the leader of the Church of Shadows, to which the Spellman family is intertwined. Michelle Gomez is also mesmerizing as Mary Wardwell (she has the most incredible eyes and cheekbones). The rest of the supporting cast are all quite interesting and I admire the show for its diversity and progressive attitudes.

I’m only halfway through the first series, so I can’t say how it all pans out, but so far I find it immensely entertaining. I think just about everyone on the cast is compelling in one way or another and I am excited by the unapologetic handling of black magic themes and ideas as well as the feminist thrust to the whole show. Most of all, I love watching the actors maintain that tension between serious and silly that the best kind of fantasy thrives on, in my opinion. I really like this show and I would recommend it.

D&D Grows

This weekend saw the second session of my new D&D campaign and two new players have joined: Natasha (as tiefling warlock Zabrina) and Dusty (as human ranger Seal). That brings the number of players to six, which is close to the maximum I’ve ever had. And more people want to join.

What’s funny is that, for most of my life growing up, D&D was kind of a closeted activity. It certainly wasn’t cool. I struggled to find and have just three players a lot of the time. In high school, things opened up and that was when, for a few sessions, I found myself with seven players. Ever since then I’ve usually had four or five, which is the number I’m most comfortable with simply because it’s a lot faster to go around the table during combat with less players involved. I love having lots of players, the more the merrier, but at a certain point it gets cumbersome.

Now, I have six players, with interest from three more. I’m nervous to add more because everyone is pretty green and it takes a long time getting things done as it is. That will improve, of course, as everyone gets more familiar with the rules, and the fifth edition is the most streamlined version of the game to date. Still, I remember very well how slow-moving my game was with seven players, even though that was 25 years ago.

The other issue with more players is scheduling. Getting everyone together is very hard, no matter the size of the group, but the bigger the crew the more difficult it can be to align everyone. A possible solution would be to run two groups, but even just one is a lot of work. I am seriously considering it, though. I mean, I have plenty of setting developed and ready to go. My obstacle is a self-imposed one: I always want novelty and rarely care to revisit a campaign. Novelty demands a lot more work, though.

When did D&D become such a popular thing?