Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

Movie Review ~ Bumblebee

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The Facts
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Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Kenneth Choi, John Ortiz, Angela Bassett,

Director: Travis Knight

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: By the time director Michael Bay spewed forth Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014 I wasn’t even paying attention anymore.  At that point the series had long since blended together into one long headache of an action sequence, barely indistinguishable from one movie to the next.  I do remember, however, falling asleep during Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017 for an extended period of time and waking up having no clue where I was or what was happening…occupational hazard.  After five (FIVE!) increasingly bombastic films that made a lot of money but never received great reviews, this spin-off was announced and I’d honestly been dreading it ever since.  Though Bay (Pain & Gain) wouldn’t be in the director’s chair he’d still be producing the prequel and I just figured it would be more of the same sturm und drang nonsense.

Turns out, a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered to zap some heart and soul into an emotionally defunct franchise. The lovably retro Bumblebee is not just a solidly pleasing action film that succeeds on its stand-alone own merits but it’s the best Transformers movie released to date.  By relegating Bay and his tendency to overstuff to the sidelines, there’s more air for everyone else to breathe and the result is a thrill ride that knows when to lay off the gas and when to floor it.

While escaping from the evil Decepticons that have overtaken the planet Cybertron, young Autobot B-127 is sent by his leader Optimus Prime to Earth to get things ready for the other Autobots to follow.  B-127 crash lands in 1987 southern California, right in the middle of a routine training operation led by Jack Burns (John Cena, Sisters) who heads a secret government organization.  Quickly targeted by Burns and his crew as a threat to Earth’s safety, he escapes but is severely wounded in the process.  Using the last of his dwindling power supply, B-127 transforms into the last thing he sees…a yellow Volkswagen beetle.

This opening sequence is fairly breathless in pace and it’s at this point that director Travis Knight (ParaNorman) allows the audience a chance to take it easy while he introduces us to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), a typical teen working a summer job at a local amusement park.  Her mom (Pamela Adlon, Grease 2) doesn’t understand her, the boy she maybe likes doesn’t know she’s alive, and all the time not spent at work is dedicated to finishing up repairing a car she was working on with her late father.  Exploring the local junk yard she comes across a few of the parts she needs as well as a strange yellow Volkswagen beetle that seems to be a perfect fit for her.  When the bug becomes hers and its secrets revealed, it will put Charlie and her family in danger as B-127 (renamed Bumblebee) unknowingly sends out a signal that attracts the attention of two evil Decepticons that have been hot on his trail.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel with the film, it’s still very much in the Transformers universe and to me all the talk about Decepticons, Autobots, Optimus Prime, and a host of other robot adjacent vernacular went in one ear and out the other.  It was the personal moments between the tech talk that struck me as something more interesting, more special than anything previously seen in these movies.  More time is spent on character development without ever skimping on action or flawless CGI, proving that you can have your AllSpark cake and savor eating it too.

The weakest parts are actually anytime it starts to take itself too seriously, namely whenever Cena’s wooden Burns is leading the charge to take Bumblebee down.  Unwittingly helping the two rogue Decepticons Shatter (given a sinewy evil voice by Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux, Wanderlust), Burns is one of those middling villains that’s neither good nor bad but serves his purpose to bring the two main foes together and then just sort of fades into the background.  It doesn’t help that Cena’s early promise of charm as an actor is fading fast, showing that he’s more Andre the Giant than The Rock.

Helping the film immeasurably is Steinfeld as our leading lady.  As she’s done in nearly everything she’s been involved with, Steinfeld elevates the material to another level and imbibes the character with a little something extra that makes her relatable to almost any audience member.  You didn’t have to be an angsty teenage girl growing up without a dad in the ‘80s to root for her character completely.  I also appreciated that while a potential love interest (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love Simon) was introduced and could definitely have been explored further, Hodson decided that wasn’t the focus of the story being told here and saved that for another time and place.

Thankfully, there aren’t endless winks and nods to the other sequels, allowing Bumblebee to very much stand on its own. Most of these types of prequels feel like they only exist to capitalize on the name recognition of an already established popular franchise and there’s little doubt that’s what Bumblebee is counting on to at least get people in the door.  It’s when those audience members get a look at the clever way the filmmakers have drawn a line between this film and the Transformers movies that have already come before that they’ll really be impressed.