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.



Film Review: Bombshell

Among the best films of 2019

Great cast and a terrific script make this one of 2019’s best movies. Written by Charles Randolph, who also wrote The Big Short (2015), the movie has a breezy, whip-smart style that is very similar. The film hits the right notes and the characters are all well-defined, brought to life by very talented actors from top to bottom. I found it funny and moving, which is as much as I can expect from any movie, and among the best movies I’ve seen in 2019.

Based on the sexual harassment suit that brought down Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, wonderful as always), the story focuses on Margot Robbie’s Kayla, a composite character who serves as the audience’s cypher. She’s the daughter of a conservative christian family who only watch Fox News, convinced that the mainstream media is sending the country to hell. She comes to the attention of the predatory Ailes at the same time as Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) launches her lawsuit after being demoted. Charlize Theron also features as Megyn Kelly, the most high-profile of the women connected to Ailes’ sexual harassment.

Making a deal with the devil

The sexual politics of Fox manifest strongest in Ailes’ talent for pitting women against each other so that when his behaviour comes to light, none will support each other. The movie does a good job of showing the compromise each of them faces, having become used to the money and attention their jobs afford them, but at the price of ignoring abuse and tolerating it when it comes at them. The theme here seems to be how to come to terms with making a deal with the devil, as each woman feels utterly isolated in her plight and afraid of repuercussions beyond job action that turning on their boss might entail.

First of all, I think the performances all around are terrific. I found Margot Robbie’s Kayla immensely sympathetic despite her right-wing conservative naivety. She’s clearly someone who is a victim of lifelong brainwashing. Nicole Kidman does a great job of making me actually feel something for Gretchen Carlson, whose endless schilling of rightwing crap on Fox made me detest her. Charlize Theron is almost unrecognizable in prosthetics and speaking with the clipped, uptight elocution of Megyn Kelly and she manages to create a compelling characterization of someone whom I disdain as much as Gretchen Carlson. It’s quite a thing when actors make repulsive people sympathetic, I think, but when it comes to John Lithgow as Roger Ailes there doesn’t seem to be any point in aiming for sympathy and instead we get Jabba the Hutt in human form and I love Lithgow for it.

Taking the money and looking the other way

The supporting cast is full of welcome surprises, from Mark Duplass as Megyn Kelly’s husband to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch and the always delightful Allison Janney as Roger Ailes’ attorney, but it’s the strength of the script and the able direction that allows them all to shine. The movie has a lot of laughs but when it needs to be serious it delivers strong emotions. In the end you are left with a sense of some sort of justice being done, but also a strong sense that the only reason these situations continue is because people won’t stand up and call out bullshit. Taking the money and looking the other way enables such injustice to prevail. Taking a stand means putting yourself at odds with the establishment and risking ostracism from ones peers, but who needs peers who are so unprincipled that they’ll stand by and allow the victimization of others?

Bombshell is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2019. It has an intelligent script, a wise director and superb actors at every level. It’s funny, poignant, moving and rewarding. I highly recommend it.