Birds of Prey: and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quin – Review

Oh, Suicide Squad. Remember that garbage pile? Well Birds of Prey is Warner Bros latest attempt to put things right with their DC Universe. Essentially being a Margot Robbie led Harley Quinn film, they decided to bet on one of the few things to come out of Suicide Squad with any praise. The trailers were colourful and crazy, two words synonymous with Harley, so that gave me some hope that this would be a fun time.

Having spent my week watching Drama’s and Best Picture contenders, Birds of Prey was been a great palette cleanser. The 6th film of my week was by far the most colourful and striking visually. Describing this as a palette cleanser is perhaps doing the film an injustice, it’s more like I have spent my week eating Michelin star cuisine, and this is a chicken vindaloo from a takeaway.

It’s loud, bombastic and fast paced. The films firmly focused on Harley Quinn for the majority of the film and having just broken up with Joker, she’s trying to figure out what her life is now she’s no longer the clown prince’s right-hand gal. The Joker’s shadow hangs heavy over the both Harley’s mind, and on the film in general. You can tell they’d have liked to use the Joker for parts of this film but due to the controversy over how Jared Leto was received they just kind of awkwardly step around it.

Once Harley and the film are into their own stride, Margot Robbie takes over completely and is clearly enjoying her time as this character. She does all she can to embody the anarchic yet fun personality the character has always had. She uses Guns, exploding glitter bombs, Mallets and baseball bats and you believe she’s just having a great time doing so regardless of who she’s using them against.

The rest of the birds aren’t developed nearly as much as Harley, but they’re all fun in their own way. Rosie Perez as frustrated detective Renee Montoya is a believable bad ass, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is entertaining and then funny when needed, and she plays it really well. Those two are pretty undeveloped throughout the film. Both are given backstory through the running voice-over from Harley Quinn, but they aren’t really given much to do besides that.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary and of the other members of the Birds, her character came closest to having an arc worth noting. Youngster Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain and does well with what she’s given, but she is essentially a plot device for large parts of the film. They have good chemistry together, but I’d have liked to see a little more of their stories rather than rely on voice-over from Harley.

I understand why this film was so focused on Harley, as she’s by far the biggest named character in here, but her character is the only one we see go through anything and show any growth of note. The rest of the film adopts a “Tell, don’t show” approach which is the opposite of good storytelling in film.

As the main protagonist, it’s odd to find yourself cheering for her as she battles her way through a police station or blows up a chemical plant. She’s a psychopath and a serial killer, but she’s fun to watch. When you have such a flawed protagonist, you need a real dick as the antagonist, and this time round we have Ewan McGregor chewing up scenery and oozing arsehole-ish charisma.

He plays Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask. I can’t say I have read many comics featuring him but from what I know of the character he’s a crime boss and a pretty feared one. His right-hand man is Victor Zsasz, a character who keeps popping up in live action batman media that doesn’t contain batman after his appearance as a key character in Gotham. That’s not really relevant, I just find it interesting how he keeps popping up.

McGregor clearly just threw himself into the role of being a dickhead, as the character has no redeeming qualities. They say the best villains are the hero of their own stories, well there is no way he is a hero in anyone’s eyes. He is fun to watch, as he always is in any role he pops up in, but there just isn’t much to the character other than he wants something, and these women are in the way.

That brings me onto the heavy-handed Women V Men angle this film takes, and whilst I have nothing against it being this way, it’s never really acknowledged. Sionis builds an army of mercenaries, but none of them are female. There is one moment when a female is trying to get out protagonist’s and it’s a short exchange with a stick of dynamite. This film doesn’t give enough time to developing the group and making them feel like strong characters. The bond between them isn’t there, we are just told they’re a group of strong people, and then they fight their way out of situations to prove it.

When you focus a film so much on the plot and what the antagonist is after rather than the characters, you need it to be an interesting plot. Roman Sionis, whilst definitely a dickhead, just want’s something. Harley and the Birds of Prey are between him and that, and that’s the conflict. There is nothing deeper at play. That type of plot is fine in films where the characters are strong and well developed throughout the movie and it becomes more about them and their interactions than the plot, but Bird of Prey doesn’t do that.

Birds of Prey is an entertaining film and it’s a feast of visual candy for the eyes. Harley Quinn is front and centre, and perhaps that’s needed for the first one of these films, assuming there will be more. There is potential for a franchise here, as the characters have enough to intrigue me further, just I wanted more in this one. This film gets much closer to where Suicide Squad was trying to get to, and if you’re into the superhero genre, it’ll be a lot of fun for you. If only this had come out years ago, pre joker, and they just hinted at him throughout before a reveal in The Batman next year. If Only.

Good: Margot Robbie is electric; the cinematography and colours are a treat and the violence is really well executed. Also a great soundtrack.

Bad: Underdeveloped characters for all but Harley, and a very basic plot.

7/10 – Colourful Fun

 

The Superman Problem

Late last week a few stories broke about DC not being entirely sure how to use Superman in their films. It’s a revelation that will shock very few, considering they’ve not touched the man of steel since Batman V Superman and Justice League where he was mishandled and used in odd ways. I think DC have been making some good moves lately, but their handling of Superman has shown they don’t understand what they have with the character. 

The character that started the Superhero film genre in the 70’s couldn’t catch a break in the 2010’s and has nothing planned for the 2020’s. Henry Cavill looks the part, and even acts the part superbly, but DC seem hesitant to go forward with anything involving the Kryptonian.

The age-old problem people immediately put forward with Superman is that he’s impervious to everything except a green rock, which is true, he is overpowered. That does not make it hard for him to be compelling though. One of the most interesting aspects of the character for me is not that he’s a godlike figure, but that he struggles to fit in anywhere.

He knows he doesn’t fit in with the people around him, but he’s grown up as one of them and lives among them. He loves a human woman, he has human friends, a normal job, and in all three of those situations he feels uncomfortable. If DC need a little bit of inspiration, they should watch Kill Bill 2, where Bill talks about superman.

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent”

Man, of Steel did not take this angle, it made superman a reluctant hero who then had to step up into the role. To me, being Superman was always the easy part for the character. Saving people from falling buildings, punching villains, all that jazz is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining his Clark Kent persona. Diving into that side of him is a tough choice though, because it’s the part that doesn’t involve him being a superhero.

From that angle, the challenge with Superman isn’t making him compelling or relevant to audiences but making that fit into a modern superhero film. The action set pieces need agency and stakes, and there is only really two ways to do that with superman. Green rocks or kidnapping the ones he cares about. Of course, we have seen both ideas executed before.

Batman V Superman had the ingredients of a good superman story, the problem with that film stem from the over eagerness of the studio to cram in everyone and catch up to Marvel. They had an interesting Lex Luthor, but he was only a bit part character because they had to get to Batman, and cover Wonder Woman, and bring in doomsday to eventually kill superman. All in one film. It was too much and went beyond ambition into the realms of stupidity. Also, Batman might well kill people, but he’s not got much previous with just annihilating people with rockets and machine guns.

In Lex Luthor, we have an influential billionaire who people can easily find things to hate about. His power is his influence, and to me the dynamic between him and superman could potentially rival the Batman/Joker situation. The Superman film I want to see is Superman struggling with being a human whilst finding stopping super-villains a piece of cake. Then he should deal with facing a real human problem like having his reputation dragged and false stories leaked about him, an enemy he can’t punch or throw around to defeat.

Give Superman a problem that Clark Kent must deal with, then you force him into a position he’s uncomfortable in, and that makes for great drama. DC trying to fit Superman into the universe they have with Wonder Woman and Aquaman probably won’t work this way, as they need him to be even more powerful than those two, who at this point are gods. Maybe they should take a leaf out of the Joker book and make a standalone Superman story that isn’t connected to the rest of the DC Films.

I hope they don’t just bench the character and focus on everything else. I am not even the biggest Superman fan, but the character demands respect, as without his films in the 70s, we wouldn’t have any of these superhero films.

A nerdy one to start the week, probably in reaction to my Sunday which was spent watching NFL and the Premier League. ‘Til Tomorrow!

ChAzJS

 

Joker Review

The Joker is a character I have been fascinated with for as long as I can remember. I loved the Mark Hamill version in the animated show and Jack Nicholson in Batman 89 was terrifying when I was a child. Jared Leto showed an example of how different the character can be and of course Heath Ledger delivered the most incredible performance we have seen in any comic book movie role. That is until now. 

Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck and it’s 99% him. He is front and centre very much like the films that very clearly inspired this one. Phoenix uses the opportunity to display just how incredible one man’s performance can be, and he transforms into the character of Arthur Fleck. When you have an actor with this talent in a role with this much complexity to it you always have a chance for something special.

Hangover director Todd Phillips is at the helm for this one, and it seems he and all the rest of the people involved in this production realised what they had. Phoenix is given the film and carries it completely on his shoulders. Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen and Frances Conroy play the other characters and are all good, but they are all there to add to the journey Arthur Fleck is experiencing.

There will be inevitable comparisons with Heath Ledger, and I fully understand that’s going to happen. I have said consistently, and it remains true even after this film, that The Dark Knight is my favourite movie. That is almost entirely down to Heath Ledgers Joker.

Part of the appeal of the Joker is that he doesn’t have a clear origin, it’s always a little unclear. This film tries to tackle how a character like the joker could be created in a real world. The 70’s setting not only allows for some great style and production design touches, but also gives the film the same style as the films of that decade. I have recently watched Taxi Driver, and Joker takes a lot of inspiration in a very unsubtle way. The comparisons with past eras of movies doesn’t end there with Falling Down and King of Comedy also being clear heavy influences.

As I have not seen those two films, I didn’t suffer from what I have seen a few people complain about with regards to the films handling of the references and inspirations it takes from those films. I have heard that a lot of this film isn’t particularly original, but I think the originality comes from this being a comic book film unlike any other we have seen before. Yes, we have seen films about terrible people before, but never have we seen a realistic depiction of someone’s slide into becoming the Joker.

How the film handles that transformation is particularly interesting to me, and some of the dialogue in the final act. Mental illness has had a stigma attached to it forever, and even today it’s often misunderstood by society. This film is brash with its messaging, and it makes a clear statement about how important it is to support people with mental illnesses. Arthur Fleck is completely detached from the reality the rest of the world lives in, and its reflected particularly well during the stand-up comedy scenes in the film.

There’s been a lot of controversy around the film in terms of how violent it is, and frankly I find that all to be ridiculous. I have seen more gratuitous violence in every single Tarantino movie, both Deadpool films, and endless amounts of horror films. The violence in this movie is impactful, and it’s all in the context of the film. At no point is any statement made about guns, it’s not the focus in any way. The focus is on the mental illness, and how letting it go unchecked can lead to terrible consequences. It’s highlighting how the downtrodden can feel neglected and unimportant to the people with power and status.

My biggest criticism of the film is it’s handling of the messaging. I personally don’t find The Hangover movies to be that funny because they’re brash and the jokes fall flat for me, and that same brush is being used here but this time it’s being used to paint a different type of story. Joker provokes a lot of thought, it’s a film that stays with you and it forces you to think about uncomfortable, difficult subjects. I suppose in a way, a more subtle approach wouldn’t have the conversation going quite so ferociously in my own mind as this film has managed to do.

In all honestly, Joker is not an entertaining film. It’s a slow burn to start with, and it has a lot of scenes that will make you squirm uncomfortably and begin to make you think you’re being sympathetic to the character of Arthur Fleck. The film shows how tragic events can affect someone’s life and spins that into an origin for an extremely twisted and dark character, and it achieves that goal very well. If you prefer your movies to have redemption or light-hearted fun, steer well clear of Joker. This is the furthest thing you could get from a Marvel film, and yet there were moments which made the geeky side of me just as gleeful as the ThunderCap moment in Avengers Endgame.

Joker is a rare film that will start a conversation about topics that are very rarely brought up in everyday life, but ones that perhaps should be. That ability to start a conversation is a sign of a very good film in my opinion.

Good: Joaquin Phoenix should win the Oscar this year, I will be astounded if anyone can top this performance. Production design, the score and soundtrack are all top notch as well.

Bad: Even if the messages it’s trying to convey are important topics for us to think about, the film has all the subtlety of a brick to the face.

9/10 – I never thought I’d say this after Heath Ledger, but this is the best Joker ever. 

 

 

Shazam! Review

DC step up to the plate just weeks before the next Avengers movie to try to remind the world they exist with Shazam!. He is a character i have a cursory knowledge of, but I don’t know his back story too well aside from the “Say Shazam! turn into a superhero” part of it. This films real attraction for me is Shazam himself, Zachary Levi. My all time favourite TV show is Chuck, the show he starred in as the title character. He is also Flynn Rider in my favourite new style Disney animated film, Tangled. Needless to say, I watched every trailer with slightly rose-tinted glasses, but once in the cinema, I put aside that love of his previous work to judge this film on its own merits. 

First of all, I have to say I am shocked at how much I enjoyed the teen actors in this film. All of them are great, and it follows on from my review last week of “Us” when I mentioned the rise of really great child and teen actors. The two main boys we follow, Billy Batson and Freddy, are funny, believable and as a result really entertaining throughout the film. Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer should both be marked as talents to watch after their performances in those roles.

Shazam! tells the origin story of the character, and it does a really does a good job of setting up the world, giving us the rules of the world, and then letting the hero have fun within those rules. We see him gleefully testing out his powers and can see the visible childish excitement in his face when he learns of a new ability. This is all performed well by Zach Levi, whose childish side has always been a part of his work. Whether it’s entirely in line with the comics I’m not sure, as I know in the Injustice fighting video game he goes from 15 year old boy and transforms into a hero who is essentially a different person. Here it’s treated as if this is a straight body swap, and he still has the mind of a 15 year old boy.

This all leads to some really wholesome, friendly fun with him and Freddy. The chemistry between him and Billy/Shazam is the driving force of the movie, and that bond that is created between them as the film progresses is heartwarming to watch unfold. The bond he has by the end with the rest of his foster family is a little odd, as there aren’t many scenes with some of them, but I think that’s actually to the betterment of the film as a whole as I think Shazam! gets its runtime just about right. A few more scenes of interacting with the siblings might have made me check my watch a few times.

Changing focus from the good guys, Mark Strong plays antagonist Dr Sivana. A cool name, a typically evil villain, and one that Mark Strong commits to and is as good as the role allows him to be. I saw a clip of Dwayne Johnson talking about how this film was developed with Black Adam as the villain but he felt telling two origins in one movie was a bit too much and would end up being a disservice to one of the characters, so they decided to take Black Adam out and make their own movie starring The Rock. It turns out he was right, as I found myself disinterested by the origins of Sivana and despite Strong’s solid performance, I just didn’t find him particularly engaging.

In a weird way, Shazam reminded me of a Phase 1 Marvel movie. The hero is nailed perfectly, and the villain is a generic guy who ends up with very similar powers to the hero. Applying that Marvel template is no bad thing though, as it means Shazam feels like a really fun time and actually has some really fun actions scenes that beat anything we saw back in Phase 1 of the MCU. Whether Shazam! is a match for Aquaman or Wonder Woman is another question of course.

My answer to that question, is Yes. Shazam feels like the final part of a tonal shift in DC’s universe of films. This is a funny film, I genuinely laughed out loud at some parts, and that is a far cry from the shocked outrage I felt watching Batman V Superman in the cinema. DC are on a good run now, with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam! all delivering really fun movies. If next years Affleck-free Batman movie can live up to these last few films, I think we might just have the makings of something really good for DC here.

Good: Teens are all great, Zach Levi is perfect for this kind of role, Some good laughs sprinkled throughout. One of the coolest moments in any film when he jumps off a roof and transforms.

Bad: Despite good acting, the villain was just a bit too unsubtle for me, and Shazam’s suit, whilst comic book accurate, just reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Turbo Man in Jingle All The Way.

7/10 I’m off to find out where I can re-watch Chuck for the 4th time. 

Aquaman Review

Warner Bros’ return to the superhero scene with Aquaman. Directed by horror aficionado James Wan and starring the manliest of all men Jason Momoa there was a big question mark in my head over this film. The nature of Aquaman’s story demand’s a lot of the film to be underwater, and the trailers looked a little CGI heavy even by today’s standards.

One great way to get an audience invested is by having good actors give great performances, and Aquaman delivers on that wholeheartedly. Hawaiian beefcake Jason Momoa is excellent in the leading role, making the whole audience either want to be him, want to be with him, or want a little from column A and a little from column B. His performance is helped by the humour in the film, allowing him to be a little more likeable than messrs Henry Cavill or Ben Affleck were ever allowed to be. More on the  wider DC Universe films another time, but for now, I’d say Aquaman is the most enjoyable character in the DC films of recent years.

Momoa leads the film, but this is far from a one man show. Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard stood out to me as excellent in their roles as Queen Atlanna and Princess Hera respectively, and I found the chemistry between Momoa and Amber Heard entertaining if a little cheesy at times. Willem Defoe and Patrick Wilson also feature prominently, both being solid if unspectacular. A shout out must be given to Dolph Lundgren, who shows hints of the form I’ve heard about from his performance in Creed 2, which I really do need to get out and see.

Excellent performances are one ingredient of a great film, but a good script and well paced plot is what can really make a film tick. Unfortunately, Aquaman falls short here for me. The plot is generic, yet somehow over complicated, I found myself surprised an hour and a bit in to discover we was only just getting to a part I’d seen clipped out in the promotional material that I’d figured would be early on. The film seems to go on a little long and I think there is a clear reason for this. There is a whole character that honestly could have been cut from the movie, and all we would have lost is a couple of action scenes and saved about 45 minutes of time spent rushing through a character who I felt could have been a key player in a sequel if done correctly. On top of this, some of the dialogue is borderline awful, and there is an awful lot of exposition and foreshadowing done early in the film. I understand the need for some of both those things, but it got a little bit heavy on both for me.

The action scenes we do get are all quite fun, especially in the first half of the film. Somewhat contradictory to what I just wrote, the action scenes I said could have been cut are arguably the best in the film. The problem is these scenes do nothing for the plot or the characters other than showing off Momoa’s biceps and abs, which may be impressive and he is really quite dreamy but.. I forget what I was saying… PLOT.. yes those scenes do not help the plot and that’s what makes good action scenes great ones!

The later action scenes, the ones the combine well with the story being told, are where I felt the CGI at its heaviest. For the most part, the underwater scenes look good, and it didn’t take me out of the movie in the scenes with dialogue between characters. However once the action scenes begin, particularly the final set piece, the film becomes a mess of colours and flashes with no real meaning. The final fight reminded me of the finale of Black Panther, with two clearly animated characters squaring off in a clearly animated environment with very similar styles and looks except colours. It felt a little like watching a fighting game to me, a very impressive looking one, but just a bit too much for my liking.

Warner Bros’ and DC are being very bold and trying to shift the tone of their cinematic universe. Aquaman is the first film made entirely after that decision, and I think the lighter moments really benefit the film. It doesn’t threaten Wonder Woman for the top spot in the DC universe, but it does deliver a fun romp through a fantastical world. Who’d have thought 10 years ago that I would prefer an Aquaman film over Batman V Superman.

Good: Momoa’s Arms, Chest, Shouders, Beard, Hair and Eyes. Great performances, cool world set up and some fun action, some great CGI.

Bad: Generic cliché plot, unnecessary time spent on a character, very CGI heavy may be too much for some people. Entire film is foreshadowed early on.

6/10 – Solid but not special. Momoa could make a Jacobs Cracker wet. (sorry)

 

DC Cast Shazam, and it’s Awesome. 

A story broke out over the weekend from the Hollywood Reporter saying that Zachary Levi has been cast as superhero “Shazam” in the DC film universe. This report has since been confirmed by the actor himself on his Instagram. 

For those who don’t know, Shazam is a young boy who transforms into a musclebound superhero whose powers rival Superman, whenever he exclaims “Shazam!”. I’m serious. That’s the premise for this character.

That taken into consideration, casting Zachary Levi, the star of one of my favourite TV shows Chuck, is a stroke of genius. It’s not a name I or anyone I know of would have suggested as a potential actor for the role, and it was initially shocking when I first read it.

Once I took a minute to step back and think about it, it actually makes so much sense. In Chuck he plays a geeky man-child who is thrust into a world he’s not ready for. Levi is convincing as both the fish out of water in the early seasons and the confident bad ass of later seasons, showcasing the range that you would need to pull off a character as unique as Shazam.

I think the best comparison to make for this is with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt. He was a guy who not many had heard of, but those that had adored him. And he hit the gym and buffed up to become one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved characters.

I’m not saying Zachary Levi can do the same for DC, we all know the sketchy track record Warner Bros have with these films. I am hoping Levi can bring that same fun and energy that got me hooked on Chuck to this role. If he succeeds I think Shazam could be a surprise hit for DC.

We have a few years to wait, but I’m now actually excited for a film I thought would be a joke. Here’s hoping the Justice League movie doesn’t sink the entire DC Universe Films and make this news obsolete.

Wonder Woman Review

Wonder Woman is finally here and on top of the pressure of being the first female lead superhero film, it also comes into a DC universe that has divided everyone’s opinion. So far i liked Man of Steel but BvS and Suicide Squad both disappointed. Could Wonder Woman save the day? 

Anyone’s concerns about Gal Gadot’s acting ability in the titular role can be put to rest. She shows she’s more than just a pretty face, and on top of her physicality in the role she proves she has what it takes to lead a superhero franchise. The chemistry between Diana and Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine) is the driving force through Wonder Woman and if Pine and Gadot didn’t work together the film would have fallen apart.

The two take centre stage and with the smattering of quirky and fun characters around them make for an entertaining cast of characters to follow on this adventure. Ewen Bremner as crazy Scotsman Charlie stands out in the small group of soldiers and Robin Wright as Amazon Warrior Antiope is the best of the Amazons. Beware if you have been watching House of Cards as i have then seeing First Lady Claire Underwood dressed like an Amazon is a tad weird at first.

To get halfway into a superhero movie review without mentioning the fight scenes is a testament to the quality of the characters we follow in this film. That connection makes the action scenes even more impactful and in my opinion Wonder Woman has the best fighting in any DC movie. The use of slow motion is brilliant, where normal films use slow mo at the point a punch actually impacts with an enemy, director Patty Jenkins slows down the action just before and creates a moment where you can see everything that is happening, and about to happen, before the action accelerates to normal speed. It is a great effect and one i hope to see more of, particularly in the DC movies. There may not be a lot of action in Wonder Woman but when it hits, it hits hard.

One downside to Wonder Woman it is that i felt it started a little slowly, but once it gets going the tempo is consistent and keeps you in the story. The biggest downer on the film is one a lot of Marvel films suffer from (Oh no i compared marvel and DC) in that the villain was pretty poor. The final battle is exciting to watch but i think after 10 years of MCU, 18 years of Xmen and several years of DC we are a bit over saturated with the kind of final battles we get in these films and its only when something is extremely creative like Ant-man or Dr.Strange that the final battles are particularly memorable.

Verdict

Wonder Woman is the best film so far in the DC Cinematic world, and whilst some would argue that isn’t hard, it’s probably the best DC film since a certain Mr Nolan gave us the Dark Knight. The action is awesome and the character of Diana is someone they can build the DC universe around and by following the template they’ve got in this film the future of the DC universe looks brighter than it ever has.

8/10 – Wonder why they didn’t try this sooner