BIRDS OF PREY (2020)

Birds of Prey.jpg

Studio:      Warner Bros.
Director:    Cathy Yan
Writer:      Christina Hodson
Producer:  Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless, Sue Kroll
Stars:     Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Blasco, Ewan McGregor

Review Score:

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Summary:

Harley Quinn crosses paths with cops, crime bosses, villains, and vigilantes in pursuit of a teenage thief who possesses an invaluable diamond.


Synopsis:     

Review:

¡°Birds of Prey¡±, or ¡°Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn¡± or ¡°Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey¡± or whatever Warner Bros. is calling it today, joins ¡°Terminator: Dark Fate¡± (review here) and ¡°Black Christmas¡± (review here) to complete a trifecta of recent releases better known by external narratives rather than their internal ones. Those narratives or course have to do with female-focused films floundering into underperforming flops.

It¡¯s an unfortunately common discourse throughout pop culture in post-2016 America, where diversity and ¡°girl power¡± positivity translate to ¡°woke garbage¡± for men wearing hats of a certain color. ¡°Why¡¯d they have to make that person (insert any non-white race here)?¡± ¡°Why¡¯d they remove the sex appeal?¡± ¡°Why isn¡¯t this targeted at me, me, me!¡±

What sucks about being smack dab in the middle of this demographic, minus the red cap, is that I want to represent middle-aged, straight white males with a sane voice of reason. Despite best intentions though, I keep coming out of these movies underwhelmed. And I hate that I find myself agreeing with naysayers more than with people praising portrayals of ass-kicking women.

So I¡¯ve been giving a great deal of thought lately to why these films aren¡¯t completely clicking. Is it the movies or is it me?

I have a fear of becoming one of those old men who someone has to reluctantly defend by saying, ¡°yeah, he still uses that outdated term, but he doesn¡¯t mean anything by it, he¡¯s just from a different era.¡± I originally drafted a longer preamble to frame my personal perspective, but cut it after realizing this review is self-centered enough. Basically, I¡¯ve been wondering, despite considering my politics as progressive, if I¡¯ve regrettably reached a time when portions of my worldview have petrified, making it increasingly harder to keep up with the ever-evolving world of individual identities.

For instance, I thought of myself as an LGB ally in college and an LGBTQ ally in adulthood. Now I understand the acronym has expanded to LGBTQIAPK and I have no idea what those last four letters mean. PC trends are changing faster than ever, and perhaps I¡¯m falling behind because age irreversibly set me in certain ways.

I bring this up because although I found ¡°Birds of Prey¡± to be a predominantly enjoyably comedic action movie, I was regularly ejected from the fantasy every time the material took on toxic masculinity with the subtlety of a jackhammer being used for brain surgery. I normally roll my eyes at misguided misogynists irrationally bemoaning conspiratorial anti-male agendas in Hollywood. But Crom help me, with ¡°Birds of Prey¡± I found myself shamefully thinking, ¡°damn, do they have a point here?¡±

¡°Birds of Prey¡± features Harley Quinn inadvertently attracting various vigilantes and misfits until circumstances turn them into a ragtag team. From veterans Margot Robbie and Rosie Perez all the way down to new talent Ella Jay Blasco, each actress scorches the screen as much as Christina Hodson¡¯s script allows. Conceptually, I¡¯m absolutely onboard.

Harley, Huntress, Dinah Lance, and police detective Renee Montoya have the like-minded goal of rescuing teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain while taking down criminal kingpin Roman Sionis and his sadistic sidekick Victor Zsasz. These aren¡¯t the only men presenting problems for the women. An animated prologue explains Joker recently kicked Harley to the curb, not unlike her deadbeat dad who ditched her at an orphanage as a child. Harley lifts her spirits by purchasing a hyena from a man who lasciviously suggests Harley can pay him with something other than cash. A kindly neighbor helps Harley hide from cops as well as criminals, but ultimately sells her out for a fat wad of cash. Meanwhile, Montoya¡¯s boss was her partner until he took credit for her collars and stole himself a promotion.

Every last man in ¡°Birds of Prey¡± is a scumbag, specifically because they screwed over women. That¡¯s still fine. This calculated creative choice fits the movie¡¯s message of wrestling free from societal restraints to assertively overcome patriarchal authority.

Problems actually come from awkwardly-inserted side sequences putting a chainmail glove over an iron fist to apply an even heavier hand. In between scenes of Harley Quinn taking on Cassandra as an enthusiastic apprentice, Roman Sionis takes out emasculated frustrations by publicly humiliating a female club patron who laughed too loud. ¡°Birds of Prey¡± progresses from Harley and Cassandra chuckling at cartoons on the couch to Huntress humorously practicing being menacing in a mirror to Roman making a crying woman stand on a table while her date forcibly rips her dress and exposes her underwear on command.

Roman already oversaw faces being cut off members of a rival¡¯s family. He put a $500,000 hit on a teenager. He had Harley kidnapped, almost tortured her until she talked him out of it, and threatened Dinah into becoming his driver. So what does this redundant slice of sleaze establish about Roman that we don¡¯t already know? What it does do is take the attitudinally irreverent fun out of the tone by abruptly replacing it with triggering trauma.

Other scenes depict two men attempting to assault and abduct Harley while she drunkenly staggers in an alleyway and fellow cops being continually condescending toward Montoya. I ask this sincerely, so please go easy as I think out loud from the possibly prejudiced brain of a privileged man who has not directly dealt with gender bias or vulnerability. To promote a feminist POV, does a movie, particularly one framed for escapist entertainment, always have to address date rape, workplace discrimination, and abusive relationships?

It¡¯s not just these types of treatments either. The sudden inclusion of an odd Marilyn Monroe dancing dream sequence upsets the tempo too.

If I missed the point, and the point is to persistently highlight these issues to make men uncomfortable and put them on notice, then mea culpa. If this makes women feel represented, empowered, or otherwise understood, then I will also shut my uninformed mouth.

But placement of such scenes feels forced and ill-fitting for the other 90% of the film. I¡¯m unclear why anyone would want to see serious situations confronted repeatedly in a movie meant to move concessions at a candy counter in a mainstream multiplex. Maybe this is my naivety speaking stupidly one more time, but to achieve equal footing with their male counterparts, why can¡¯t the Birds of Prey simply take on one of Batman¡¯s typical cases, e.g. Scarecrow unleashing a new fear gas or Bane destroying a football field? Wouldn¡¯t that do more for equality than reinforcing the gender gap, or has popular entertainment not reached a point where that is possible yet?

One could make the case that ¡°Birds of Prey¡± wants its women to be under a man¡¯s thumb in some way. Harley can¡¯t shake Joker¡¯s shadow. Dinah can¡¯t shake Roman¡¯s. Montoya¡¯s professional peers delight in belittling her and Huntress defines her life by killing every man who wronged her. More than thematically however, ¡°Bird of Prey¡± chains characterizations to creatively restrictive shackles they seem desperate to break out of.

Dinah uses her superpower exactly one time, meaning she could be anybody else and there would be no difference to her story or the movie¡¯s. What else makes her Black Canary? Montoya manages to exhibit more personality, but it¡¯s hard not to think of Rosie Perez¡¯s more memorable onscreen personas and wish she exhibited that feistier flare here.

The biggest missed bullseye belongs to Huntress. It should be a crime to cast Mary Elizabeth Winstead only to limit her to the lowest rung on ¡°Birds of Prey¡¯s¡± ladder. Worse, her scant appearances paint Huntress as perhaps the funniest, most intriguing, and consistently charming loose screw in Harley¡¯s crew, yet she only features for a few minutes. Many of the murders she commits occur offscreen too. It¡¯s always a bad idea to tease a hearty meal that almost made the menu only to serve a small portion of something less satisfying instead.

While I have disappointing characters on the line, keep in mind that superheroes as well as their movies often tend to only be as compelling as their villains. It¡¯s not a coincidence that Batman and Spider-Man are the most popular costumed crusaders of their respective universes and they both have the best rogues galleries.

¡°Birds of Prey¡± hits a similar snag as lesser Marvel and DC movies by having a big bad who¡¯s an indistinct crime boss. In elevating the Birds of Prey, evildoers get dumbed down to the point of being bland. Ewan McGregor plays Roman Sionis, whose alter ego is Black Mask even though he wears his costume only once, like an actual comic book character, almost carving a big enough hunk of ham to star in a Joel Schumacher ¡°Batman¡± sequel. Against the comparatively straightforward protagonists, of whom only Harley is animated with copious color, McGregor¡¯s Roman comes off as dopey in an unintentionally cartoonish way. Chris Messina is even limper as ho-hum henchman Zsasz, and that¡¯s an 8-ball that a hero/villain dynamic should never fall behind.

It¡¯s easy to dismissively not care about irate men unfairly trolling ¡°Terminator: Dark Fate¡± or ¡°Birds of Prey¡± on social media. But sadly, disappointing ticket sales suggest they are winning, or at least making enough of a difference that planned sequels and spinoffs for these movies have been scuttled.

The interim bummer about this is that, forgetting a few underdeveloped characters and tonally imbalanced plot points, ¡°Birds of Prey¡± features plenty of terrific action that closed eyes aren¡¯t appreciating. I cannot emphasize enough how much I love that we can actually SEE everything happening during this film¡¯s fights. They aren¡¯t just well choreographed by the coordinators. They¡¯re well blocked by director Cathy Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

After reaching a reasonable distance and remaining there, the camera stylishly incorporates slow motion to emphasize effects like colorful confetti bursts or backlit sprinkler drops. The balletic movements of skilled stunt people end up artfully highlighted instead of becoming lost in blurred bursts of quick cuts and close-ups.

Similar sentiments apply to sound effects. Aluminum baseball bat smacks and puffs of powder exploded by bullet squibs combine with other clicks and clacks for a sound symphony that pleases the ears as much as acrobatic spins fascinate the eyes.

The big finale falls back on a lot of standard Steadicam circling. But I prefer the long looks these extended takes give us, where energy comes from performers instead of from editing.

When ¡°Birds of Prey¡± keeps its fire hot by focusing on these explosive showdowns as well as Harley¡¯s warped humor, it sizzles more often than it fizzles. When the movie detours into subjects that aren¡¯t strongly suited for a flip crime caper where kooks and crooks chase a MacGuffin, ¡°Birds of Prey¡± darkens into an unfriendly film. Copious clich¨¦s including a Mexican standoff, a final faceoff featuring a headlocked hostage, and a slowed-down cover of an ¡®80s rock hit (¡°Hit Me with Your Best Shot¡± in this case) make up the middle ground.

That¡¯s still more marks in the win column than in the losses, equaling out to a movie worth a thumb¡¯s up instead of a thumb¡¯s down. Everyone nevertheless itches to break out bigger in solo features or sequels where they could dig into the fiction¡¯s untapped potential. Too bad this setup kicked enough cans that an average response from audiences suggests we¡¯ll probably never know how high or how hard these women really could have kicked.

Review Score: 65