“She just publicly updated her relationship status.” Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a shotgun blast of pure pop riot grrl anarchy. Just the slap in the face “bro culture” has needed. And will continue to need.

Director Cathy Yan and producer/star Margot Robbie, working from a script by Christina Hodson, have crafted a beautifully forward-leaning day-glo antithesis to the retrograde sludge that was Suicide Squad (the precursor to Birds of Prey wherein Robbie’s “Harley Quinn” made her scene-stealing debut). One could even argue that Birds of Prey is a razor-barbed bookend to the exquisite existential angst of DC Entertainment’s Oscar-winning Joker.

The set up of Birds of Prey is that Harley has finally broken up for good with her boyfriend: yes, The Joker. Not Joaquin’s superior “Mistah J,” but Jared Leto’s inferior one – the tattooed, gold-toothed, overacting, “Hot Topic” fever dream one from Suicide Squad. Their breakup involves blowing up a chemical factory because, you know … comic books. As Rosie Perez’ world-weary and whimsically hard-boiled Detective Renee Montoya observes, “She [Harley] just publicly updated her relationship status.” Robbie is divine as Harley. Full of madcap poignancy, unencumbered by the cinematic fetishization she and the character suffered in Suicide Squad.

Alas, freeing herself from one hotbed of toxic masculinity just throws Harley into the deep end of a pool of abusive, egomaniacal, swaggering male bullsh*t as every thug in town now sees Harley as fair game. Leading the pack is Ewan McGregor’s sadistic Roman “Black Mask” Sionis and his sleazy, murderous, codependent wingman Mr. Zsasz (a fabulously glowering Chris Messina). McGregor literally gnaws at every splinter of scenery in one of his best performances – all fluttery hands, gritted teeth and coiled self-loathing.

Eventually the film adds a serpentine plot line about a diamond and a hidden family fortune, tied to a mafia family entirely gunned down years ago with only one “lost” survivor. Think Anastasia by way of The Jersey Shore. As Birds of Prey gathers momentum, like a pinball careening through a Rube Goldberg contraption, Harley partners up with Detective Montoya as well as a scrappy street thief Cassandra Cain (charming Ella Jay Basco), sonically superpowered club singer Black Canary (sparkling Jurnee Smollett-Bell of Roll Bounce and The Great Debaters), and socially maladjusted but utterly a$$-kicking Huntress (dynamite – as always – Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Fargo and Sky High).

There is a buoyancy to the entire film that is utterly infectious. The sheer joy these actors seem to be having playing women in command in a world out of control is a delight. I’m not one to care much for fight scenes or action sequences, but the balletic, athletic choreography on display here is Gene Kelly meets Sly Stallone, Bob Fosse meets Jackie Chan, if filmed by Vincente Minnelli. When a climactic car chase involves one of the characters on roller skates, you may be in for a treat.

The film reminded me of Drew Barrymore’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels, now 20 (!) years old. A film by women and about women, reclaiming a genre (action/superheroes) which has been far too long dominated by men (and, worse, by men of a certain stunted emotional development). Go for the hijinks, stay for the surprising depth of character development, and linger for the final scene as the women celebrate their victory over tacos and margaritas, sharing camaraderie and conversation and honest appreciation for their common humanity. Far too few films – let alone comic book epics – end on such an affirming note. Keep ‘em coming.

P.S. Spoiler alert for my animal loving friends, but Harley’s hyena “Bruce” makes it to the end of the film just fine. 😉

I leave you with these lyrics from one of the songs in the film, the lyrics of which I think encapsulate the flick nicely. From Birds of Prey soundtrack cut “Smile” by Maesie Peters: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=X0exh-UHsjg

[Chorus]
Got bridges to burn and places to run
Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun

[Verse 1]
It’s my party, my body, my business
It’s my town and my crown on my hitlist
It’s my world and you’re just living in it
Did I, did I, did I finish?
They are my girls, and it’s us who’s deciding
It’s our door, did we say you’re invited?
Leave your name and we’ll call if we like it
If we, if we, if we like it

[Pre-Chorus]
No more Mrs. Sweet and Miss Nice
No more Mrs. Fuckin’ Polite
Time for Mrs. Takin’ What’s Mine
You don’t need him

[Chorus]
Got bridges to burn and places to run
Yeah, this smile is a loaded gun

[Verse 2]
It’s my party, my body, my business
If he tries to control me, he’s finished
Won’t be crying, there’s plenty of fishes
And I, and I, and I’m fishin’
You should know that you won’t find another
Who will ruin your life then your brother’s
Who will take what she’s owed when she wants to
Did I, did I, did I stutter?

“Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Suicide Squad

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I’m supposed to hate Suicide Squad, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or I truly do have lousy taste, but I was entertained by David Ayer’s scruffy take on DC Comics’ classic Dirty Dozen-homage. Could it have been better? Um, yeah. Is it some cosmic train wreck that has destroyed cinema forevermore? Nope.

In full disclosure, my objectivity may be clouded. A bit. I still have the sense memory of holding the first issue of John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s 1987-comic-reimagining in my grubby eighth grade hands. (See cover below.) Suicide Squad had been around since the 60s, but, under the watch of husband/wife team Ostrander and Yale and inspired by the then-recent DC Universe-rebooting one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, the Squad went from being a dull paramilitary outfit (a cut-rate Mission: Impossible) to a gonzo bucket of colorfully costumed sociopathic misfits who agreed to take on covert missions in order to commute time from their lengthy prison sentences.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ostrander and Yale galvanized the team around new character Amanda Waller, the Squad’s tough-as-nails government handler for whom Machiavelli and Mussolini were likely matinee idols, and the Squad’s adventures became a bruise-black satire on the endemic overreach and inhumanity inherent in America’s military-industrial complex and criminal justice system.

Funny how little things change in 30-some years.

As Warner Brothers’ DC Entertainment continues to play catch up with the brighter, more engaging, critically acclaimed work of direct competitor Disney’s Marvel Studios, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation Suicide Squad plays well to the insiders (geeks like yours truly) but may stumble a bit with the casual moviegoer. That’s a shame. This material is rife with opportunity for timely and pithy allegory in a world where terror is combated with more terror and where politicians distinguish themselves through schoolyard taunts. Ostrander and Yale were pretty damn prescient.

Regardless, Suicide Squad is a pip, particularly in its first hour; Ayer, via narrator Waller (played with crisp gravitas by the ever-dependable Viola Davis [Prisoners]), fires off a visceral roll call of the scuzziest villains this side of Roger Ailes. Margot Robbie (The Big Short) as Harley Quinn, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Deadshot, and Jai Courtney (Divergent) as Captain Boomerang have the most arresting (pun intended) moments throughout, popping off their glib one-liners with an undercurrent of soulful pathos. Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) as the tragic El Diablo and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) as the Squad’s field lieutenant Rick Flag are compelling and pleasantly understated, given that, respectively, one shoots fire from his hands and the other is dating a sorceress. You know, just a typical Tuesday.

Other cast members get a bit lost in the movie’s manic shuffle of CGI zombies and its “Now, THAT’S What I Call Hip-Hop” soundtrack. Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity) as Killer Croc eke out a memorable moment or two in this overstuffed flick, which is more credit to their talents than to Ayer’s screenplay.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s Jared Leto. The Joker. I may be in the minority, but I find Leto exhausting and a bit desperate. Always have. I believe his revelatory and nuanced and humane turn in Dallas Buyers Club may have been the exception and not the rule for his particular filmography.

Leto’s work in Suicide Squad as The Joker makes Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter look like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Leto has expressed some crabbiness that so many of his scenes in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. The powers-that-be (and whatever ADHD-addled focus group edited this thing) should have cut them all.

Yet, the narrative is stubbornly beholden to shackling Robbie’s much superior Harley Quinn to her comic book beau onscreen. To be honest, Harley would have been just fine without her “Mistah J.” And so would we.

After the first hour, alas, Suicide Squad devolves into the kind of muddy, mundane comic book movie that typically inflicted cinemas in the 90s. An ill-defined villain stands on a rooftop somewhere waving his/her arms around and speaking in an ominously metallic voice borrowed from the witness protection program. A sea of computer-generated minions construct a death-ray/cloud-thing that will annihilate humanity and demolish a number of stop-motion-photographed international landmarks along the way. Consequently, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie about which you should give much thought after viewing … but it could have been.

Ayer (End of Watch) is sharp enough to assign Smith’s Deadshot a quip about how silly and cliched that apocalyptic denouement can be (yet somehow the filmmaker is too lazy to actually devise a fresh third act). Smith intones, “Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Indeed, that is the question. I’m guessing Marvel’s acerbic Deadpool would have had an answer. And an inventive one. Maybe Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds can plot a cross-studios team-up for their next outing.

___________________

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is the real “American hustle.”

Two movies I saw today depict – in soul-searching, soul-scarring detail – how hard we all have to strive each and every day just to survive … each and every day.

At surface, you couldn’t find two men more different than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) or Captain Phillips‘ Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).

Woodroof is a Texan man-whore homophobe, lazing through his day-job as an electrician, looking for any quick gambling buck he can find and seeking solace in the short-term highs of grungy drug use and even grungier sex. Phillips on the other hand is a solid New England family man with  bedrock work ethic, patriarchal worry for his family’s long-term happiness, and a noble wariness toward his high-stakes job as a freighter ship captain in troubled waters.

However, both men are united – across decades and locations – through a shared quick-wittedness, scruffy bravery, and nerve-wracking battle with pirates … in Phillips’ case, quite literal pirates from Somalia and, in Woodroof’s case, big pharma and the FDA and the medical community writ large.

During the quietly effective opening scenes of Captain Phillips, establishing Phillips’ workaday love of his family, he tells his wife (the always excellent Catherine Keener) of his anxiety over what kind of future their children will have: “Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” And this could be a theme for both films.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof’s alpha male world of swagger is turned upside down when he receives an HIV+ diagnosis. This is the kind of man who think rodeos are a hoot, women are party favors, and Rock Hudson is a “big fairy.” (Remember, this is the go-go Reaganomic 80s.)

However, in the land of “movie logic,” this huckster cowboy is also a resourceful and opportunistic researcher (who knew McConaughey could make library microfiche use look so compelling?) with a burgeoning heart of gold and a begrudging respect for his gay fellow man, spurred by all the money to be made trafficking unapproved drugs across the Mexican border.

Jennifer Garner, doing that edgy earnestness that all actors of her generation gleaned from the “Julia Roberts School of Acting,” is okay as one of Woodroof’s doctors, though neither Garner nor her underwritten role ever really go anywhere.

McConaughey is quite capable in a tricky part (yet one might argue that his extreme weight loss for the film does all the work), but the movie doesn’t really start clicking until the arrival of Jared Leto’s “Rayon.” Leto does a yeoman’s job keeping his portrayal from sliding off the rails into cliche – the mutable, transgender pixie who keeps everyone safe and grounded with her Southern charm and earth mother care-taking.

Leto is a person first, whip-smart and sad but never maudlin and not once the demeaned comic relief. The dynamic between McConaughey and Leto is fun to watch and (spoiler alert!) only gets mawkish around Leto’s inevitable Camille-like death. This is not Leto’s fault – bad writing, clunky direction by Jean-Marc Vallee, and TV-movie sloppy editing mar the film’s denouement.

At one level, Dallas Buyers Club – like precursors Philadelphia or Longtime Companion – is the prototypical “HIV film,” leveraging the disease as a metaphor for the intolerance of a society that ostracizes the sick, the broken, and the unique. However, on another (and arguably fresher) level, the film is an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to pursue big money for treating symptoms over curing disease and of the doctors and government agencies that knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in throwing the infirm under the crushing wheels of “medical progress.”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Captain Phillips, the much stronger film, depicts a world popping at the seams from the economic pressures placed on us all. Smartly, director Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, opens the film with parallel sequences: Hanks’ Phillips gets “ready for work” as he heads to the airport with his wife and then meets with his crew to review their trip, and these scenes are juxtaposed alongside those of the Somali pirates preparing for their day of pillaging, debating among themselves their best course of action.

Greengrass seems to suggest – with lack of editorializing – a “job is a job” and circumstances have dictated very different lives for these souls. The tension comes from the audience’s knowledge that these different economic forces are bound to collide shortly.

The film moves efficiently toward the central conflict of “haves and have-nots” as the Somalis board Phillips’ ship in short order, and an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips does his darndest to stay in control, protect his crew, and contain the situation. The pirates, led by the justifiably praised Barkhad Abdi and the underrated Faysal Ahmed, are a frantic force, smashing and grabbing in a world that they perceive with vicious longing as rich with entitlement.

At one point, Abdi reflects on all he will be able to do when he is one day “in America.” The moment is simultaneously poignant and frightening in his perception of the joys of materialism and the horror he believes he has to inflict to achieve it.

Greengrass is the consummate director (where is his Oscar, dammit?) who makes MOVIES! in the truest sense of cinematic story-telling, and Captain Phillips is his best work to date (which is pretty remarkable, given how good his films always are). His latest effort does not bore for a second, ratcheting the stakes with a relentless clockwork solemnity.

The tension is real and it is shared – between captain, crew, antagonists, would-be rescuers, and audience – not because of some lethargic “based on real events” filmmaking, but through the old school charms of well-developed characters,  crackerjack pace, precise edits, compelling score, intelligent script, and exceptional acting.

This is the strongest performance of Hanks’ storied career (which is somewhat bittersweet as he isn’t nominated this year for an Oscar, though McConaughey is and will likely win). If you aren’t yelping in fear and heartbreak and hope in his climactic moments, then you must have been watching a different movie than I. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you,” he exclaims to the heavens and one presumes to his family … and we as audience members, separated by the fourth wall of film, must say the same to Phillips in return. His emotional release when the ordeal finally ends is as cathartic as anything I’ve seen in years.

Captain Phillips is a film for the ages; Dallas Buyers Club is a film for the moment. Both are worthwhile, but, combined, they unforgettably depict the harrowing lengths to which any of us will go to survive.