Birds of Prey review

For F*** Magazine

BIRDS OF PREY

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast : Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Genre: Action/Crime/Comics
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 6 February 2020
Rating : NC16

The DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs. While the franchise has its ardent supporters, moviegoers at large have decided that in the cinematic battle between the two big boys in comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has emerged victorious. DC’s not going to take that lying down, and as the DCEU heads towards each of the movies being more of their own thing instead of having the close interconnectivity that was originally planned, there’s the opportunity for some exciting alchemy. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one such opportunity.

Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has struck out on her own and left the Joker – for good, as she tells herself. On a mission of reinvention, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of mob boss and nightclub proprietor Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is after Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who has stolen something priceless from him. Also caught in the mix are vengeful mafia daughter Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer-turned Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who wants to bring Sionis to justice. These colourful characters collide on the battleground that is Gotham City as Harley brings her signature blend of chaos to the proceedings.

Birds of Prey knows and embraces what it is. This is a very smart adaptation –  screenwriter Christina Hodson, working closely with Robbie (who also produced the film), changes a lot from the comics but also combines the pieces in a way that works. The character of Harley Quinn is not a member of the Birds of Prey, and interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her a member of the team – she’s narrating their origin story. Harley is an unreliable narrator, which gives the film license to mess around with the structure, rewinding and fast-forwarding as Harley gives telling the story her best shot. Director Cathy Yan has style to spare, and unlike several earlier DCEU movies, this isn’t one that feels like it has been obviously been meddled with by studio executives. There will inevitably be comparisons to Deadpool, but perhaps Birds of Prey owes a bit more of the oft-overlooked Tank Girl.

Birds of Prey is messy, but it’s messy in a way that feels natural. Robbie has only played Harley Quinn once before, yet displays such ownership of the character, understanding and embodying her in a way that demonstrates her investment in the character and the source material. The fear that many DC Comics fans had going in was that Robbie had turned a Birds of Prey movie into a Harley Quinn movie – this movie feels like a Harley Quinn movie that has collided with a Birds of Prey movie in a “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!”/”You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” way.

The movie’s messiness may work for some more than it does for others. The device of Harley as unreliable narrator means that what should be a straightforward narrative is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. The movie must cover multiple back-stories and does so efficiently, but it can still sometimes feel like it’s spreading itself too thin, the way other comic book hero team-up movies sometimes do.

Some deviations from the source material can be difficult to be come to terms with – Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle is often instrumental in forming the Birds of Prey but is entirely absent here. Harley has just one pet hyena because it was too expensive to animate two – not a big deal. The biggest change from the comics is the character of Cassandra Cain, and this doesn’t quite work. The character bears almost no similarities to her namesake from the comics, who was a mute, deadly daughter of assassins who eventually became Batgirl. This iteration of Cassandra has more in common with Catwoman supporting character Holly Robinson. None of this is Ella Jay Basco’s fault – she plays the mouthy kid with enough attitude and is often entertaining in the role – but it is frustrating that there technically is a Batgirl in a Birds of Prey movie, just not the right one.

Margot Robbie is a great Harley. This movie further explores the characters flaws and her desire to be a part of something bigger. That something might not necessarily be the Birds of Prey, but it is fun to watch her pop in and interact with the team just as it is forming.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Huntress – the crossbow-fu is dazzling stuff and she manages to be both formidable and endearing. After the brutal murder of her family at the hands of a rival mob, Helena trained to be an assassin and as such has no social skills to speak of. Winstead plays both the icy killer and the awkward member of the friend group equally well.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a riveting character – she’s trying to get out from under the thumb of Roman Sionis and is suppressing a power that she doesn’t quite know how to use. In the comics, Black Canary is an expert martial artist who favours kicking, and there’s quite a lot of that here.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is meant to be a cliché, a hard-drinking, one-liner-dispensing caricature of a tough cop from an 80s movie, which she pulls off well.

Ewan McGregor is having the time of his life. He’s over-the-top and goofy but also suitably intimidating and unhinged. Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Sionis’ creepy, sycophantic lackey and they both play off each other well. Each time McGregor enters a scene, there’s the sense that he will not leave until he has stolen the show.

The film boasts some of the best action sequences of any DCEU film yet. The integration of gymnastics into Harley’s fights is done exceedingly well. The fights are stylised but also feel tactile – prepare to wince as many, many bones get broken with a loud crunch. There’s a motorbike-roller skates-car chase that is beautifully executed, and as mentioned above, all the crossbow stuff is impressive. Stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Chad Stahelski of 87Eleven Action Design craft many enjoyable action sequences that while not as slick as what might be seen in a John Wick movie, do fit the overall feel of the film.

Summary: Birds of Prey is enjoyably grimy, a comic book movie that is breezily entertaining, packed with violent action and finished off with a generous sprinkle of zaniness. It’s a lot more cohesive than many previous DCEU outings and left this reviewer wanting to see more of these characters. Now can we please get that Gotham City Sirens movie already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

The Dead Don’t Die review

THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast : Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits
Genre : Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : M18

There have been many zombie movies and many zombie comedies, but few with as illustrious a cast as The Dead Don’t Die. Can a bunch of stars unite to inject life into yet another story about the undead?

In the small town of Centerville, weirdness is afoot. An alteration in the axis of the earth’s rotation has resulted in fluctuating daylight hours and interference with cell phones. Even more bizarrely, the dead are rising from the grave to walk the earth. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his partner Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) must fend off the zombies and protect the residents of Centerville from getting infected. Eccentric coroner Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) also battles the zombies as the cantankerous Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) observes from afar.

The Dead Don’t Die feels like a bunch of friends got together and shot a zombie movie for fun. It just so happens that acclaimed indie director Jim Jarmusch is the guy who gathered said friends, and in addition to the afore-mentioned names, the cast also includes Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, RZA and Selena Gomez.

There is nothing wrong with a bunch of friends making a movie together – that’s what Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell did with The Evil Dead. While there is some amusement to be derived from the cast and the jokes, The Dead Don’t Die feels like a movie that would’ve played best in Jarmusch’s garage with the cast and crew gathered ‘round. It feels much longer than its 105-minute runtime.

Zombie movies have been so overplayed that every new entry in the subgenre must have a ‘take’ on things to justify its existence. With The Dead Don’t Die, the ‘take’ appears to be the cast. Its plot of a small town overrun with the undead, leading to colourful characters banding together to fight the zombie hordes, is a well-worn one. There are half-hearted attempts at social commentary – polar fracking leads to the destabilisation of the earth’s axis, and the sentiment that we’re all already zombies enslaved by the pursuit of the next shiny thing is stated outright. However, the zombie-as-consumerism metaphor was already done in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. It feels like The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t have anything to say because its messages are conveyed so half-heartedly.

There’s no denying that it’s impossible to get at least somewhat amusing results from putting this group together. Bill Murray and Adam Driver are an endearing double act as the somewhat hapless heroes, with Driver putting all his lightsaber training to good use when he swings his bat at the zombies.

Tilda Swinton handily steals the show as intended. Naming her character “Zelda Winston” as a riff on her real name is something else that contributes to the feeling that The Dead Don’t Die is a silly enterprise undertaken by a group of friends as a fun project. Similarly, Rosie Perez plays ‘Posie Juarez’. Seeing Tilda Swinton swing a samurai sword at zombies is funny and she clearly had a great time making this, but her character is the biggest source of superficial quirkiness in a sea of superficial quirk.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to gathering this cast beyond the occasional “oh hey, that’s Selena Gomez” moment of recognition. Tom Waits’ appearance as a shaggy hermit is funnier than it should be because it seems like that’s pretty much who Tom Waits is in real life.

This reviewer keeps going back to the point about this feeling like an amateur effort made for a laugh, because it easily would’ve been more charming as that. There’s a dissonance in seeing the cast for this movie glamming it up on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Dead Don’t Die was the opening film. Because of the star power behind it and because Jarmusch is an established indie director, the self-referential nature of The Dead Don’t Die is smug instead of endearing. The is a film with a strictly limited appeal that based on its cast is getting a wide release, which seems ill-advised. The Dead Don’t Die is amusingly self-indulgent and does give us yet another delightfully committed, bonkers Tilda Swinton performance, but it is ultimately hollow and unsatisfying.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong