Review of "Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)"

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker have broken up, for good this time. Harley is looking to establish herself as a criminal force to be reckoned with in Gotham, however without the protection of her former boyfriend, she becomes of the target of everyone with a grudge against her. One of those people is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), nightclub owner and the king of crime on the east side of Gotham City. Sionis has plenty of enemies of his own including GCPD Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). She’s been building a case against him for years but can’t get enough evidence to get support from DA Ellen Yee (Ali Wong). The singer at Sionis’ club is Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). She has a beautiful voice and a hidden ability. She also has a crush on Sionis. Someone is using a crossbow to kill some of Gotham’s organized crime figures. That someone is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and she’s also attracting Sionis’ attention. However, Sionis has his eyes on a bigger prize. The Bertinelli organized crime family was gunned down years earlier, but no one was ever able to put their hands on their fortune valued in the millions. Sionis knows all the account numbers hiding the Bertinelli’s millions were laser etched on a 30-carat diamond and he has finally tracked it down. He sends Dinah and his enforcer, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), to pick up the diamond, but it is stolen by a teenaged pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Sionis puts a half-million-dollar bounty on Cain’s head, sending everyone in Gotham’s crime world, including Harley, looking for her. As the hunt for Cain heats up, Harley, Montoya, Huntress and Lance find themselves forced to team up to protect the young pickpocket’s life and their own.

“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” is another in the trend of giving the bad guys their own movie. We’ve gotten “Suicide Squad,” “Venom” (both getting sequels), “Joker” (possibly getting a sequel), and now “Birds of Prey.” While not strictly about villains, three-fifths of the main characters are criminals in some way, so majority rules. As has happened in all but “Joker,” the bad guys rally to fight a worse guy, making them the good guys that do bad things for the best reasons. Since watching villains do things with no redeeming value is depressing (but profitable as in “Joker”), the trend of villain-centric films is something of a cop out since they wind up being the heroes by the end. “Birds of Prey” continues this trend but does it with such style and attitude, you don’t mind seeing a rehash of most other bad guy stories.

Margot Robbie’s Harley is the narrator of “Birds of Prey” and, reflecting the characters scattered personality, the movie’s story jumps around in time. While I initially found the jumbled narrative annoying, it eventually makes sense as all the story threads tie together. While this isn’t the most imaginative way to tell a story, it works to fit in with Harley’s unfocused nature.

“Birds of Prey” teeters on falling apart for most of its runtime. Between Harley’s insanity, Sionis’ cruelty, neurosis and suggested bisexuality, and the over-the-top violence, director Cathy Yan dances on the razor’s edge of catastrophe. To her credit, Yan manages to pull back from the precipice and deliver a film that gives the audience insane stunts, graphic violence, and characters with enough redeeming values to forgive their past transgressions. All while staying true to the characters and their comic book origins.

Yan and writer Christina Hodson fill “Birds of Prey” with plenty of action and, more importantly, humor. The film is plenty dark when it needs to be, but even when Harley is facing certain death at the hands of Sionis or any one of the people coming after her, she manages a funny quip or an imaginative way out of her sticky situation. The script gives funny moments to just about every speaking character, and even finds some humor for Harley’s pet hyena she names Bruce.

DC films had developed a reputation for being awfully dark and overly serious. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was certainly guilty of that, and to a lesser extent, “Justice League.” The shakeup of leadership in the DC Extended Universe seems to have allowed some lighter, more humorous takes to be applied to the most recent films. “Wonder Woman,” “Shazam,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey” have all been significantly less dour than their predecessors. The odd man out here is “Joker,” but I have my own theories as to why that doesn’t count in the DCEU. Listen to the next episode of Comedy Tragedy Marriage for a more thorough explanation. That episode should be out on Tuesday evening, February 11.

“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. Several legs are broken at the knee with that joint bending in the wrong direction. A few arms suffer similar fates at the elbow. There are numerous shootings including an entire multi-generational family being gunned down. Several people get shot with crossbow bolts with some of those injuries being very bloody. A family has their faces peeled off. Numerous bad guys are hammered with a giant mallet. A character is blown apart by a hand grenade. That’s a small portion of the violence in the film. The drug material involves a humorous scene where Harley uses cocaine stored in police evidence as a shield from bullets. The bullets rip through the pallet of coke bundles, creating a cloud around Harley. She inhales deeply to gain energy to fight against those attacking her. To be honest, I don’t remember any overt sexual moments in the film. Foul language is common throughout the film.

“Birds of Prey” was initially thought to debut with an opening weekend box office of around $60 million. While it took the top spot in its first weekend, it brought in what is considered a surprisingly low $33 million. Some analysts think the problem is the R rating keeping younger audiences away. “Suicide Squad” was PG-13 and opened at over $130 million. I don’t think that was entirely the issue. To be perfectly honest, I believe there was a combination of misogyny and no highly powered villain playing a big role in the story. The largest segment of the comic book movie audience is male. The only men on screen in this film are vile. With no one to reflect their hero fantasies back to them on screen, men comprised 49 percent of the opening weekend audience (according to numbers from Box Office Mojo). I believe that lack of strong male on screen presence is why some of the nerds that normally fill theaters stayed away. And, with all its faults, “Suicide Squad” had some flashy villains like Enchantress, El Diablo and Killer Croc. While one of the characters in “Birds of Prey” is Black Canary, she only uses her powers to full force once. No one is flying, shooting fire, wielding magic or looks like a humanoid crocodile ripping out necks. Fortunately, such things don’t trouble me enough to stay away from what is a fun adventure, and those holding a grudge over very little testosterone on screen should get over it.

“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” gets five stars.

Next week, I’ll be reviewing the likely very unromantic film “Fantasy Island” for WIMZ.com.

Other movies coming out this week:

The Photograph—

Sonic the Hedgehog—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Doctor Sleep”

Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has been dealing with ghosts and memories of his homicidal father at the Overlook Hotel all his life. As a child he was visited by the ghost of Overlook Hotel chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), who taught Danny how to construct boxes in his mind to trap the ghosts so they couldn’t try to possess him anymore. Now an adult, Danny is a homeless alcoholic in need of a new start. Riding a bus to a small town, Danny meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis). Billy recognizes Danny as a fellow alcoholic, gives him a job in the city park, becomes his AA sponsor and is a reference to get him an apartment. Danny soon begins work as an orderly in a hospice and is tagged with the nickname Doctor Sleep as he comforts a patient on the edge of death. In Danny’s apartment there’s a wall painted with chalkboard paint by a previous tenant. One morning, Danny sees a message he didn’t write saying “morning.” The message is from a teenage girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). Abra has “the shine” like Danny, only she’s much more powerful. Her ability attracts the attention of a cult of called the True Knot, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The True Knot feed off the shine, they call it steam, given off by those with the gift as they die. The True Knot travel the country, abducting young people with the gift, torturing them to purify the steam, and absorb it to prolong their lives. They also save some of the steam in metal cannisters to feed on later. It’s getting more difficult to find powerful possessors of steam and the True Knot is beginning to age and die. Abra is so powerful, Rose believes she could feed her cult for a very long time. Abra gets in touch with Danny, in person, and he intends to protect her from the True Knot, even if that means returning to the cursed Overlook Hotel.

Is it an absolute necessity to have seen or be familiar with “The Shining” to enjoy “Doctor Sleep?” No, however it would help as this follow up makes references to, and contains characters from, the 1980 film that might cause some confusion to the uninitiated. Does “Doctor Sleep” stand on its own? Yes, it does. Director Mike Flanagan had the unenviable task of taking elements of Stanley Kubrick’s classic, that changed things from Stephen King’s novel, and merge them into a new film made almost 40 years later and based on another of King’s books. He also had to make King happy in the process, something Kubrick didn’t do. “Doctor Sleep” may be the best example of artistic juggling with running chainsaws in history.

The reverence for “The Shining” on display in “Doctor Sleep” might be called slavish by some. However, it’s necessary to give proper credit to a film that wasn’t popular or successful when it was released but has gained a following and respect over the years. I watched “The Shining” the night before seeing “Doctor Sleep” and was surprised by how much I liked it. Sure, Jack Nicholson comes off as very smarmy right off the bat, and Shelly Duvall, who didn’t get along with Kubrick, performed the role of Wendy like she was in a high school production of “Oklahoma,” but the tone of the film, the performance of Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance, and the explosive and violent final act make “The Shining” a one-of-a-kind horror/thriller. “Doctor Sleep” takes the base built by the original film and builds an exciting and tense haunted house upon it.

Rebecca Ferguson is a terrific villain as Rose the Hat. Her beauty and lilting accent lull the innocent into her trap. She and her cult of shine vampires are a roving band of death and greed, finding those that shine and sucking them dry in the most vulgar and painful way. Ferguson’s charisma lights up the screen so that, despite her being the leader of the bad guys, you miss her when she’s not featured. You want to see her twirl her metaphorical mustache as she plots, schemes and carries out her diabolical plans.

Ewan McGregor’s Danny Torrance is a pitiful sight when we meet the adult version. He’s a drunk, getting in bar fights, going home with women he doesn’t know just so he has a place to sleep as he’s homeless, stealing from those women, all to quiet his shine and try to forget what happened when he was a child. When he meets Billy right after he gets off the bus, he admits he’s trying to run away from himself. McGregor is all pain in these first few scenes. You can see it oozing from every pore. As Danny begins to turn things around, there’s a glow in McGregor’s performance as the character’s goodness (pardon the expression) shines through. McGregor isn’t flashy in his performance until later scenes at the dilapidated but still haunted Overlook. Danny is the anchor for the audience. He’s the focal point of our sympathy and we want Danny to be alright. McGregor makes it easy for us to root for Danny.

Kyliegh Curran is great as Abra Stone. Abra is tough and willing to get her hands dirty to fight Rose and the True Knot. Curran delivers a balanced performance, showing Abra as a typical teenager with fears and insecurities, and a brave and mature young woman facing a challenge no one can imagine. Curran gives Abra a calm and steady presence atypical for a teenager. We see Abra has been using her abilities since she was very young and has apparently honed them to a point that attracts Rose’s attention. When the two meet in their minds, the battle is fierce and Abra is more than a match for the older Rose. It’s a battle I would have liked to see more of, but the film makers chose to keep their interactions limited. Curran is an actress I am looking for to seeing more of as her career grows.

“Doctor Sleep” is rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use. There is a barroom fight that is very bloody. A body is shown with a knife in its chest. A character kills himself with a rifle shot to the head. We see various people shot. The True Knot people die in a weird way. A car crash shows the driver being thrown through the windshield. A little boy is sliced with a knife numerous times before he dies. A woman’s leg is cut with a knife three times. Drug use is limited to seeing a woman snort cocaine, but the True Knot’s ingesting the steam/shine could be seen as drug use. We see numerous ghosts with various injuries, including the naked bathtub hag from “The Shining.” Foul language is scattered.

Danny Lloyd, who played Danny Torrance in “The Shining,” has a brief cameo in the film. Some shots from the original movie were repurposed for “Doctor Sleep,” including the opening helicopter shot over the lake and past the small island. Some music is reused including “Midnight with the Stars and You,” heard in the party scene in the Gold Ballroom. There are numerous touches from “The Shining” that are sprinkled into “Doctor Sleep,” but they don’t take over the film, just add a hint of flavor. There is much to love about “Doctor Sleep” that has nothing to do with “The Shining.” It stands on its own as a very entertaining and tense film. It builds on “The Shining” without tearing it down. It’s a rare feat to both honor and advance a film so separated by time and those involved in making it.

“Doctor Sleep” gets five stars.

This week, I’ll be reviewing “Ford v. Ferrari” for WIMZ.com.

Other new films are:

Charlie’s Angels—

The Good Liar—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Mortdecai”

Lord Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is an art dealer who doesn’t mind bending the rules and dealing with the underbelly of the fine art trade. Married to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mortdecai is eight-million British pounds in debt with back taxes and must find a big payday within a few days. Meanwhile, a painting by Goya is being cleaned by a restorer when she is killed by an international terrorist named Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) who steals the painting. As he escapes, he is struck by a baseball bat and knocked unconscious. The painting is then stolen from Strago. Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) of MI-5 approaches Mortdecai about helping find the painting. He is reluctant but agrees in exchange for a fee. Aiding Mortdecai in his investigation is his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) who also serves as his bodyguard. Several leads are followed that put Mortdecai and Jock in peril as Strago is still looking for the painting as well as a Russian mobster named Romanov (Ulrich Thomsen). As they are running around the world, Johanna is using Martland’s affection for her to get information and conducting her own investigation. She talks with an elderly former British army officer who tells her the painting in question has a secret Swiss bank account number on the back. The account belongs to a high ranking Nazi official and could contain hundreds of millions of dollars. Mortdecai figures out the painting is actually a lost Goya that has been the stuff of art world legend for years. It is hidden under what can be seen on the surface and is only visible using UV light. Adding to the stress of the situation, Mortdecai has grown a mustache that Johanna hates. Every time she kisses him it makes her gag and he gags in sympathetic response. Between the debt, the gallivanting around the world, the threat of violence from several quarters and the mustache, the marriage of the Mortdecai’s is approaching collapse.

Just before I saw “Mortdecai” I checked its score on Rotten Tomatoes. At that time it had a 12% rotten rating. There are very few positive reviews of the film and those that are mildly positive have several reservations about the movie. Naturally, I entered the theatre prepared to have an awful time and then write a scathing review. As I exited, I wondered what all the vitriol was about. While it isn’t a spectacular success it isn’t the monumental pile of crap you might expect with such a low score. The real question is: What’s up with Johnny Depp’s career choices lately?

“Mortdecai” is a mess story wise. It jumps from location to location and introduces characters that then disappear for big chunks of time only to show up again for a few seconds then once again disappear. The movie is stuffed with characters and it makes it nearly impossible to keep up with who is who. Some streamlining of the story would have helped a great deal, allowing the plot some time to breathe and give us more time with the main players. As it is now, watching “Mortdecai” is akin to trying to read a book while jumping on a pogo stick. I think the script writers wanted to complicate the story to give it more of a feeling of a farce. Sadly, they lack the skills to juggle that many storylines simultaneously and the narrative suffers for it. While I have no evidence to support it, this movie has the feel of one that was being rewritten on the fly.

I can’t fault the cast for this as they are doing the best they can with what they are given. Depp once again buries himself into a character with a distinctive feature—his mustache. Depp excels in finding a hook into a character and coming to life once that makeup is applied. Mortdecai’s nervous tics, his grunts and groans of frustration, his air of superiority all probably started with the mustache. If the movie has a surprise performance, it is from Paul Bettany. Bettany often shines with comedic gold at various times in the film. His much put upon manservant is tolerant of all his master’s foibles, weaknesses, cowardice and poor skills with weapons that frequently get Jock injured in some way. Bettany drops in one liners and snide comments from time to time offering a glimpse into their relationship. Gwyneth Paltrow shows she can be funny in “Mortdecai.” The running gag about gagging is handled with skill by both her and Depp. Her conversations with Mortdecai, showing she is in charge in the relationship, often have a decent laugh embedded in the dialog. Paltrow’s performance is more about style than substance with her aristocratic air and decent British accent adding a layer of elegance that plays well against Depp’s mustachioed man-child.

The rest of the cast doesn’t come off nearly as well with Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Munn and Ewan McGregor all wasted in minor roles that are under written and under-utilized. McGregor gets the most screen time of the secondary players. His character is there mostly to move the plot along at certain times. Inspector Martland is also something of a metaphorical punching bag for Mortdecai as Martland was in love with Johanna in college and he thinks there may still be a chance of a relationship. Mortdecai likes rubbing his marriage to Johanna in his face while Johanna doesn’t mind using his puppy love as a way to get information. McGregor deserves a better character than this.

“Mortdecai” is rated R for sexual material and some language. The sexual material is mostly of the comic variety with no nudity. Foul language is scattered.

While “Mortdecai” has a decent number of laughs it doesn’t have enough given the goofiness of the story. The movie wants to be a farce in the style of the Pink Panther films (the ones with Peter Sellars, not Steve Martin) and the 1972 film “What’s Up, Doc?” with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. It falls well short of the mark and would need a major retooling to approach those classics. Sadly, the movie is both a critical and financial flop, the third of Depp’s recent films to tank (following “The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence”). The question of if this string of failures will hurt Depp’s career has been asked recently. Depp probably isn’t taking jobs because he needs the money but because he likes the project. He’s recently finished shooting a new film with Kevin Smith called “Yoga Hosers” and appeared in Smith’s last movie “Tusk.” Depp was the best thing about “Tusk” and will likely be the best thing about “Yoga Hosers.” Knowing Smith’s movies cost less to make than Depp’s usual salary tells me he takes on jobs that appeal to him. So, do three major flops in a row mean Depp’s career as a leading man is in trouble? I don’t think so. If he works on what he likes it won’t matter if they make a ton of money or not, and “Mortdecai” will not make anywhere near its $60-million budget. If you just love Johnny Depp and can’t imagine not seeing his film in the theatre then by all means go see it. If you think you can wait, watch it on Netflix or on DVD.

“Mortdecai” gets three stars out of five and that’s probably a bit generous.

Maybe the next movie I see will be better. I’ve got four to choose from.

Black or White—

Cake—

The Loft—

Project Almanac—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.