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: Joker

Great movie. It is complex, operating on a lot of levels, but also quite emotionally powerful and very, very mature. It is possibly the most grounded and realistic interpretation of a DC comics character yet and Joaquin Phonex is phenomenal as the central character. I loved the way it was shot and the tone of it, so much like Taxi Driver that it felt like it was made around the same time. I think Joker is a really great movie, among the best of 2019.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire with aspirations of being a stand-up comedian but plagued by mental illness of which one of the symptoms is uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. He lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) a shut-in who idolizes Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and writes letters to him from a very run-down apartment in a rough part of town. Arthur makes a bid for comedy at an open-mic night but bombs so badly, Gotham’s top-rated talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) puts the clip on the air as an object of ridicule. After being assaulted on the job, Arthur is given a gun for protection which he uses to shoot three Wall Street bullies who assault him on the subway. This sets off a city-wide class conflict when the “vigilante clown” is taken up as a hero by the resentful poor of the city who all don clown masks to descend on city hall at the climax of the film, which coincides with Arthur’s appearance as a guest on the Murray Franklin show, booked after the unexpected hit episode where he was made fun of. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is perfect, given the character and his questionable mental state.

It’s really a story about denial and narcissism

First of all, the story is excellent, with Arthur’s struggles front and center but writ large on the canvas of the city around him. The time is roughly 1981 and the world we see is truly the world he inhabits. The bleakness of Raegan-era recession is presented in piled-up garbage everywhere symbolizing societal decay, an outward reflection of Arthur’s social decay and illness which only gets worse when cutbacks to social programs force him off his medication. The influence of films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are as strong as the character’s comic book lore and I found lots of Easter eggs for fans of both sources. The script (by director Todd Phillip and Scott Silver) and Phoenix’s performance generate empathy for the character on the one hand but also revulsion at the heinous acts he commits. What you end up with is not so much sympathy as understanding and, I think, a positive sense that facts have to be faced and the need for empathy and kindness in our world. It’s really a story about denial and narcissism, of seeing only what we want to see and shutting out everything and everyone else. It felt to me as much a story about the breakdown of society as much as the breakdown of a man. Very compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in this movie. I thought, after what Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger each achieved, followed by Jared Letos’ failure to measure up, there was nothing left in the character, but I was very wrong. Phoenix brings a powerful, repressed intensity to it that is new and sad and scary. His physicality is astounding, from his wiry physique and clownish dancing to what he does with his eyes while laughing to convey that there’s really nothing funny about the situation. It’s an absolutely fascinating performance and he dominates you attention every second he’s on screen. The rest of the cast is great too, everyone inhabiting their roles authentically, but nobody comes close to what Phoenix does here.

We don’t need more insanity

The cinematography and production design are all terrific. The movie feels as if it was made in the time it was set. There are some very interesting design choices as well, such as the use of simple Halloween clown masks echoing the Joker’s gang of bank robbers from the opening sequence of The Dark Knight as well as mirroring the use of the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta as a symbol for global protest. There is violence, for sure, though not as much as you might think. I felt it was at a totally appropriate level, harsh enough for you to feel the brutality but not gratuitous. The soundtrack is great, filled with weirdly nostalgic music which further makes it feel from another time. Despite all of its trappings and mood, however, I found it also feels very contemporary and cautionary for today. I don’t think Joker is political so much as it is apolitical, pointing out hypocrisy on every side. I think what it says is more along the lines of “we don’t need more insanity.”

I loved Joker. I think it’s intelligent, complex, fascinating and darkly funny. There is a lot to chew on and it is worth seeing more than once. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing to watch and the story gives him a lot to work with while also being a cautionary tale about social breakdown. It is certainly the most mature treatment of comic book superhero material I’ve ever seen on screen.

I also think Mark Kermode’s review is on-target.

Mark Kermode’s review
Official trailer