BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

(NOTE: As I write this, they’ve changed the name of this movie to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY, in the hope of boosting its box office appeal after a first week that was a little short of expectations.)

I wasn’t a big fan of SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I was a fan of Margot Robbie’s turn as anti-heroine Harley Quinn. So when I heard she was coming back in a new BIRDS OF PREY movie, I was happy that more Harley was on the way, but my biggest question was “Why Birds of Prey?” Why not just a solo Harley movie?

I found myself wondering the same thing watching the BIRDS OF PREY movie. Robbie is terrific again as Harley, and since she is also the narrator of our story, there’s lots of her onscreen (a lot more than in SUICIDE SQUAD). So that made me happy. But everything else in the movie is just…mediocre superhero stuff that could have been better written and more compelling.

The movie begins with Harley on her own now that she and the Joker (we don’t see the Joker, but then again, we don’t have to, this ain’t his movie) have broken up for good (quick recap: Harley was originally a psychiatrist who tried to analyze the Joker, and instead they fell in love and she became his accomplice in crime), and she suddenly realizes that the reason she was able to get away with so much insane behavior in the past was because she had the Joker’s protection. Now that they’ve broken up, that’s no longer the case, and now everyone who has a gripe against Harley is free to wipe her off the face of the earth. Except, she’s not going that easily.

Instead, she buys a pet hyena (named Bruce after “that hunky billionaire guy”), and blows up a chemical plant that was important when Harley and “Mistah J” were together. Then she sits back in her apartment and plans her next move.

Oh, and there’s a kinda psychotic guy named Roman Sionis, aka The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting,” 1996, and “Doctor Sleep,” 2019) who wants to be the new crime kingpin of Gotham City, and wants Harley dead.

But these plans will lead to her becoming involved with the other “Birds of Prey,” superhero women who also have their own issues. Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell, from the shows “Friday Night Lights,” from 2009 – 2011, and “True Blood,” 2013-2014) is a lounge singer in the club Sionis owns, but moonlights as a butt-kicking vigilante who, when she needs it, has a voice that can actually break glass and send bad guys flying; Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress (Mary Elisabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” 2010 and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” 2016), a gangster’s daughter who is out for revenge against the rival mob that killed her family, with some martial arts skills and a crossbow; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump,” 1992, and “Fearless,” 1993), a tough cop who just know is going to get kicked off the force at some point for taking matters into her own hands; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who I guess is a future Batgirl in the comics, but here is just a young pickpocket who ends up stealing a diamond that everyone wants, especially Black Mask, who is willing to kill for it.

For some reason, watching this movie kept reminding me of DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Both are R-rated films about anti-heroes who like to curse a lot and who have very crazy personalities. Also, both DEADPOOL 2 and BIRDS OF PREY hinged somewhat on the anti-hero having to protect a kid who the bad guys want to eliminate. I don’t know why these kid storylines are so appealing. To make the unhinged heroes seem more human? But it totally negates the point of the R-rating, which is to NOT HAVE TO BE A FAMILY-FRIENDLY MOVIE. In both cases the kids are annoying, badly written, and among the blandest characters in their movies. In both cases, the kids should have been jettisoned and replaced with A BETTER SCRIPT.

So that’s it in a nutshell. See BIRDS OF PREY for Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was a genius to latch on to this very popular character, and I’m sure she’s got a bright future. She’s great, and we’ll be seeing more of her.  But the plot and the other characters (for the most part) are pretty much the same old same old, and there’s not a lot else here to recommend it. McGregor seems to be having fun as Black Mask, and he’s entertaining enough as a bad guy, but he seems a bit restrained at times (he doesn’t go all the way with the crazy persona, which is why he could never replace the Joker). Chris Messina (of the show “The Mindy Project,” 2012- 2017, and the HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects,” 2018),  is good as Black Mask’s sadistic henchman, Victor Zsasz, although it would have been more interesting if he had some kind of powers/alter ego as well. Huntress isn’t very well developed, but there is some nice banter between her (she’s so serious!) and the snarkier Harley. The other characters range from bland (Black Canary, Montoya) to just unnecessary (the kid, but we’ve already covered that), which is too bad because I like Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez – their characters just aren’t fleshed out enough to be interesting.

Oh, and I wish there had been more of the CGI hyena.

It’s directed well by Cathy Yan, whose previous film was 2018’s DEAD PIGS, with a script by Christina Hodson (who also wrote “Bumblebee,” 2018, and the upcoming film version of “The Flash, 2022), that handles Harley well, but could have had a much better story for her to appear in.

I give it three knives, mostly for Robbie’s performance. Again, whether you like this movie or not will depend on how much you like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Let’s hope her next adventure is a much more dynamic (and insane) one, a movie that reflects the character and doesn’t restrain her.

Oh, and she doesn’t need to be part of a team anymore, dammit! Robbie as Harley is already scheduled to appear next in the rebooted SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), as well as an upcoming Joker/Harley Quinn project and GOTHAM CITY SIRENS (which sounds kinda like BIRDS OF PREY). How about a plain old HARLEY QUINN solo flick? Why is that so hard for Hollywood to get its head around?

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BIRDS OF PREY ~ 3 KNIVES!

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AQUAMAN (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I was really looking forward to this one. First off, I’m probably one of the few people who actually liked JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), and I found Jason Momoa’s take on Aquaman to be intriguing (but the number one character from JUSTICE LEAGUE I’d love to see get his own movie is Cyborg!). Also, after the success of WONDER WOMAN (2017), it looked like DC Comics was starting to get their superhero solo movies right. I was also excited because, like Wonder Woman, this was a chance for a major DC hero to star in a movie – one who had never done so before. We’ve had dozens of Batman and Superman movies over the years, but it’s about time some of the other big heroes had a chance to shine. I have no clue what happened to GREEN LANTERN (2011), featuring one of my favorite DC characters, when he was adapted for the screen and…totally bombed, but it seemed like DC was getting back on the right course lately with its mission to imitate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hell, DC has some pretty great superhero characters of their own, and it was about time they were expanding things to include all of the other kick-ass characters in their armoire. Besides, Aquaman is a favorite of mine from way back in the days when I was a kid and he was in the SUPER FRIENDS (1973 – 2011) cartoon, even if he was the butt of lots of jokes since, as the guy whose main power seemed to be the ability to talk to fishes (move over Luca Brasi!).

But something happened to AQUAMAN on its way to the big screen. Something…confusing…that has resulted in a very lackluster script. I was excited to hear that James Wan was going to direct. He’s the director who made his name with the SAW and CONJURING movies – and while I really didn’t think AQUAMAN would be anything like his horror franchises, I thought he was an interesting choice who would bring a new angle to the superhero genre. Early indications were that he was very ambitious, which was a good sign.

Jason Mamoa (also Khal Drogo in the first season of GAME OF THRONES, Conan in the movie CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 2011, as well as in the shows STARGATE: ATLANTIS, 2005 -2009, and the Netflix series FRONTIER) and in the movies once again plays Arthur Curry, a half-human, half-Atlantean prince whose mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, washed ashore off the coast of Maine one day, injured in battle. She is taken in by a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison, of the great movie ONCE WERE WARRIORS, 1993, and he was Jango Fett in STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, 2002) and nursed to health, leading to a love story and the birth of Arthur. But his mother is taken away from him early on. His father is a nice enough guy, but it’s visits from his mother’s trusted advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe, also in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, 2002, and Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, 2009) that gives him the training he needs to be a warrior, and to control his powers. These include communicating with sea life, of course (something he finds out early in a scene involving a class trip to “the Boston Aquarium” (last time I checked it was called The New England Aquarium).

A woman warrior from sunken Atlantis named Mera (Amber Heard of ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, 2006) shows up one day to tell Arthur about his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, who was Nite Owl in WATCHMEN, 2009, and was also in James Wan’s INSIDIOUS, 2010, and THE CONJURING, 2013), a full-blooded Atalantean who wants to unite the various undersea kingdoms to form an army to attack the surface world. In order to stop this onslaught, Arthur has to return with her to Atlantis and take the throne, something easier said than done. But Arthur does have Mera on his side (she is engaged to Orm, strangely enough) and good old Vulko. But it may not be enough.

Orm is the principal villain, even if he doesn’t believe he is a bad guy (he has a point about the surface world dumping its garbage in the seas). In the comics his character is called OceanMaster, and when he tries to use the moniker in the film, it sounds awfully silly. Much more interesting is a modern-day pirate (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of the Netflix series THE GET DOWN, 2016-2017, and the movie THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, 2017) who has a score to settle with Aquaman (concerning the death of his pirate father in the very first scene), and who is working with the Atlantians, using some technology they give him to create special battle armor and call himself Black Manta.

Anyway, Black Manta has powerful lasers that shoot out the of the eyes of his helmet and he’s a formidable bad guy (and much more interesting than Orm). He does his best to get revenge. Meanwhile, Arthur has to face off with Orm in a gladiator pit called the Ring of Fire in a “challenge for the crown” fight that reminded me an awful lot of the similar royal battles in BLACK PANTHER (2018). Except BLACK PANTHER did it much better.

The problem with AQUAMAN isn’t the characters per se. Or the actors. They do what they can. But the plot is convoluted, sometimes a bit draggy, and overall way too long. It’s a movie that overstays its welcome, and more than once I found myself feeling pretty bored with it all, despite the spectacle of multi-colored CGI sea creatures. Then again, maybe all the colorful CGI effects were meant to distract us from the lame storyline. It’s not half as exciting as it thinks it is.

Wan does an okay job directing this one, but the script—by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who previously wrote ORPHAN, 2009, THE CONJURING 2, 2016, and several episodes of THE WALKING DEAD) and Will Beall (who wrote the screenplay for GANGSTER SQUAD, 2013, and episodes of the TV shows CASTLE, 2009 – 2011, and TRAINING DAY, 2018), based on a story idea by Wan, Beall and Geoff Johns—is weak and lacking in anything really fresh. We’ve seen all this before, and there’s nothing here to make AQUAMAN more exciting than any other superhero flick, or much different than the cookie-cutter flicks we’ve seen way too many of.

While it’s great to see Arthur Curry finally get his own movie, I wish it was a better one.

But at least it’s not as bad as GREEN LANTERN.

I give it two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives AQUAMAN ~ 2 1/2 knives!

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One interesting side note. Aquaman is one of those DC characters who has a very similar doppleganger in the Marvel Universe. Marvel’s Namor, the Sub-Mariner, is also a half-Atlantean prince with a similar origin story. But listen to this—Aquaman first appeared in “More Fun Comics” #73, way back in 1941, created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. You’d think with that kind of pedigree he’d be the original underwater superhero. I mean – 1941!! But Marvel’s Sub-Mariner, who first appeared back when the company was called Timely Comics, was created by the great Bill Everett way back in 1939. He was first created for a comic called “Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly” that was never released, before showing