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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DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

Review by LL Soares

An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which was itself a sequel to his early novel, THE SHININGas well as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s equally iconic film version of THE SHINING (1980)there’s an awful lot about DOCTOR SLEEP that could go wrong. Especially since King is famously unhappy with the Kubrick film, and the director, Mike Flanagan (who also adapted King’s GERALD’S GAME in 2017), consulted with King on this project. Despite that, Flanagan revisits some of the unforgettable imagery from that same Kubrick film.

So does DOCTOR SLEEP work, despite trying to stay true to more than one source material?

I thought it was pretty successful overall.

Director Flanagan, who also directed the films OCULUS (2013), HUSH (2016), and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), as well as the Netflix series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, also wrote the screenplay for this one.

In this film, Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd in Kubrick’s film and Roger Dale Floyd in flashbacks as a boy here), is grown up (and now played by Ewan McGregor, of “TRAINSPOTTING,” 1996, and young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the STAR WARS series of films), and pretty much a lost soul. He drinks too much, he gets in fights, he wanders from town to town. He still has the mental powers he had as a kid (including telepathy, and more interesting tricks that are revealed later), except he is trying to run away from them, trying to run away from himself, and finding that he can’t, no matter how much he moves around. He finally stops for awhile in a small town where he befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, “ONCE WERE WARRIORS,” 1994, and in the upcoming AVATAR sequels), who offers him a second chance to sober up and start fresh.

He’s still haunted by the trauma of his childhood, where, during a winter at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, his father (played by Jack Nicholson in the original film) went insane and tried to kill him and his mother, Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall originally).  He’s obviously been unable to shake that nightmare and it still has a strong hold on him. He gets visits from the ghosts of the Overlook, including the Old Woman in the Bath (Billie Gibson). He also still gets visits from Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers in Kubrick’s film and played by Carl Lumbly here), his mentor and the man who told him originally that he had “the shining” as a boy. Hallorann is dead, but still lingering, and pops up from time to time to offer advice.

Dan’s been able to stay beneath the radar of other people like himself, but there’s a girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran, who was only in one movie before this, 2017’s I CAN I WILL I DID) who’s a good person like he is, and is much more powerful, who is able to contact Danny (now going by Dan) and communicate with him. This becomes especially important when Abra “witnesses” a murder in an abandoned field (part of some long empty fuel-producing compound). The victim is another kid like her (though not as powerful). The killers are another thing entirely.

They’re called the Knot and they’re led by Rose the Hat (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, previously in “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION,” 2015, and “THE GREATEST SHOWMAN,” 2017), an Irish lass who wears (you guessed it) a (top) hat. She and her band of murderers are always on the lookout for kids who “shine” because they eat them, literally. Well, their souls. It keeps them near-immortal, and they’re a merciless bunch. The thing is, while Abra is able to “see” them with her mind, Rose eventually can see her as well, and tracks her down, intent on either making her one of the Knot, or feasting on her soul. Most probably the latter.

As I said, Abra reaches out to Dan, and together they conspire to defeat Rose and her minions. But it won’t be easy. She’s a formidable one, as is her second-in-command named Crow Daddy (the excellent Zahn McClarnon, also in “BONE TOMAHAWK,” 2015, and the TV shows FARGO, MIDNIGHT, TEXAS, and WESTWORLD), who’s as vicious as Rose is, and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind, also in Gaspar Noe’s “ENTER THE VOID,” 2009, and the TV series REVENGE, 2011-2015) , the latest addition to the Knot, who is a “pusher” (can get people to do what she wants by telling them what to do). The rest of the Knot members have named like Barry the Chunk (Robert Longstreet, “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU,” and “AQUAMAN,” both 2018), Grampa Flick (Carel Struycken, The Giant from TWIN PEAKS, 1990-1991, and Lurch in the 90s ADDAMS FAMILY movies), and Silent Sarey (Catherine Parker, “ABSENTIA,” 2011).

A game of cat and mouse proceeds, and innocent people are sucked into the struggle (some fatally), culminating in a final showdown at the now boarded-up Overlook Hotel, and it’s there where the Kubrick imagery explodes, with ghosts of Dan’s father (now played by actor Henry Thomas, using the name Thomas Downing in the credits), that scary old woman in room 237 (now played by Sallye Hooks), and even the creepy twin girls (played in Kubrick’s film by Lisa and Louise Burns, and now played by Sadie and Kk Heim). Those bright red carpets and scary hallways are back in a big way (as is the elevator that bleeds!), as Dan faces his personal demons head-on for once and for all.

The leads here are really good. I like McGregor here a lot, Curran is a terrific kid actor who is the backbone of the movie and has a bright future ahead of her, and Ferguson is really memorable as the villainous Rose. The script and direction are also top-notch.

I didn’t think the marketing push for this one was very good (it could have been more aggressively marketed, I saw very few commercials for it), almost as if the studio didn’t believe in it, which is unfortunate, because it’s a strong film, much better than IT: CHAPTER TWO from earlier this year, also based on King. I thought just about everything about DOCTOR SLEEP worked, and I liked the new characters as much, or more, than the returning ones.

A solid addition to the cinema canon of Stephen King, and if you’re a fan you should check it out. I give DOCTOR SLEEP ~ 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives DOCTOR SLEEP ~ 3 1/2 KNIVES

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