Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes Director: Cathy Yan Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Ella Jay Basco
The DC Extended Universe is enjoying quite the renaissance after the its long string of creative misfires notwithstanding Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman (2017), since the Warner Bros. division’s change in management. Along with last year’s Shazam!, Harley Quinn’s latest solo/team outing all but evens up the meta rivalry between the DCEU and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Taking a titular page fromAlejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn picks up sometime after the events of Suicide Squad (2016) with Harley Quinn, reprised by the delightful Margot Robbie, recovering from her unceremonious break-up with the Joker, leaving her to fend for herself for the first time since she become The Jester of Genocide’s eccentric sidekick. Quinn’s prior relationship with the Joker meant she was free from the consequences of her mayhem. With that gone, it’s now open season for anyone with beef to take their shot, not unlike John Wick’s “excommunicado” in Chapter 3 – which funny enough both films share fight choreographers. In her fight for survival Harley falls in love with a sexy breakfast sandwich, gets snatched by lesser known Batman rogues Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), “rescues” a pickpocketing foster kid, and befriends a team of badass anti-heroines: all of it making for a hell of a good time.
Sophomore feature director Cathy Yan knocks Birds of Prey out of the park. From its kinetic, self-referential energy (ala the Deadpool films), to its bone-breaking action straight out of the John Wickiverse, to the authentic comradery among the Birds, the DCEU has yet to produce something this unapologetically brutal in its committed vision. Yan exercises excellent creative judgment bringing a good comic book story to the big screen in critical ways the likes of Zack Snyder, David Ayer, Joss Whedon, and Todd Phillips were unable to with their films: a keen capacity to let these characters breathe without becoming bogged down by what they think the plot is. The appeal of comic book films isn’t the derivative plotting that can be found in virtually every film in the genre; it’s the characters and their respective uniquenesses that makes a comic book movie worth a damn.
Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Ella Jay Basco all bring something different yet essential to Birds of Prey that only this cast of actresses could have. That’s not to say male cast isn’t also fantastic. Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask is having such a sadistic good time, you can’t help but chuckle even when he’s ordering the most heinous acts of violence. Sionis’ right-hand Victor Zsasz takes a slight visual detour from his usual comic appearance, but he’s still delectably creepy. The film is clever to only feature Joker by name; it’s presumed that the Jared Leto version is still active, but that’s only confirmed by a couple passing lines and a brief Suicide Squad flashback that doesn’t even show his face. Regardless, Joker’s “presence” is well felt without being overbearing, and for the better.
Birds of Prey may have made Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn my favorite comic book movie character ever (plus she votes Bernie). Pardon my French, but fuck the box office and whatever financial forecasts this film may have fallen short of. If we don’t get a Cathy Yan-helmed Gotham City Sirens in the next few years, the DCEU will have made its biggest mistake since Justice League.
2019 was quite the eventful year: with more victories in film/TV than anyone could have hoped for, but with just as many defeats. The year’s rogue gallery range from the outright delectable to the downright terrible, some fictional, others unavoidably real. This is my list of 2019’s top 10 villains both on and off the screen.
10) 2014 Thanos (Josh Brolin) – Avengers: Endgame
One could argue Avengers: Infinity War houses the definitive Thanos depiction and they’d probably be right. Nonetheless, his parallel universe self in Avengers: Endgame made for the perfect climatic villain to the parenthetical end of a Marvel Cinematic Universe era. Not even with the nigh-full hero roster could the Avengers best the big purple guy, his clutch defeat coming at Tony Stark’s suicide play. Whether the future of the MCU is defined by blunder or fresh success, the record can rest that the brand’s greatest villain was truly done justice.
9) Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) – Doctor Sleep
A major surprise to come out of the big Stephan King adaptation surge this year, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is probably the best of the bunch (between It: Chapter 2, Pet Sematary, and In the Tall Grass). Both a direct and spiritual sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary The Shining, Flanagan attempts to balance homage and his own signature, the result being a mostly successful supernatural epic, and no epic is made complete without a formidable adversary. Rose the Hat plays a lot like an X-Men/Legion villain if that villain had a habit of murdering children for their “shine,” not to mention the film’s psyche-battle sequences involving Rose are some of my favorite of the year.
8) Hawkins (Sam Claflin) – The Nightingale
I can’t name a more harrowing 2019 viewing experience than Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Technically released in 2018, Kent’s follow-up to the acclaimed The Babadook, was finally made available for consumption mid-year. Do not take the content warnings ahead of this film lightly. Kent is exploring a dark streak that puts Gasper Noe to shame and almost all of it has to do with Sam Claflin’s Hawkins. A British officer stationed in an increasingly colonized 1825 Australia, Hawkins embodies that white supremacist entitlement and disregard for life that isn’t his own that continues to define the character of those entrusted with power in our modern world. The violence men like Hawkins perpetuate and inspire is corrosive to the human spirit; the film’s conclusion suggests it may not be worth meeting the Hawkins’ of the world where they live, but it could be the only thing that does the job.
7) Modernity – Midsommar
Aside from UncutGems, Midsommar was my favorite film of 2019 (you can find my review here). So I was disheartened to see so much of the discourse around it fixated on Christian, the boyfriend, being the source of the film’s antagonisms, which is blatantly incorrect. The answer to that question lies in the film’s opening act set in America. It’s that “modern” habitat that incubates Dani and Christian’s codependent suffering, juxtaposed with the taboo of the Hårga against the hegemonic conditions that drove Dani’s sister to murder/suicide their parents and triggering Dani’s mental breakdown. The Hårga nor Christian are the villains of this story, but modernity that’s failed them in the truest sense.
6) George RR Martin/D&D – Game of Thrones Season 8
HBO’s Game of Thrones saw its series finale in 2019 and while I’m nowhere near as angry about how it ended as many others were, I can concede that both George RR Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss failed the fans by needlessly sabotaging the sanctity of their meticulously planned story for the sake of not wanting to overstay. Big mistake. The final season suffered greatly from the lack of episodes, forcing the narrative to rush through necessary developments that in turn just plop out of the sky (and no I am not referring to Daenerys’ motivation for torching King’s Landing), undercutting the logical momentum of seasons before it. Now while D&D had no good reason to condense the final season considering HBO was willing to produce the show for even more seasons, part of the blame lies with author George RR Martin for not finishing his books in time. Even as one of my favorite TV series of all time, I can’t say I’m in a hurry to start-to-finish the show again knowing how it ends the way it does.
5) Todd Phillips – Joker
Todd Phillips’ Joker movie was by far the most internally contentious film of 2019 (my review here). On one hand an effective case study of ideological fatalism within those terrorized by Capitalism’s social happenings, but on the other hand the flashy work of a tired filmmaker out of his depth, Joker is a necessary evil to expose the masses to a little material analysis. Phillips lands on this list not for making a mediocre movie masquerading as a great one, but for time and time again contradicting the themes of his work to complain about “woke culture ruining comedy”. If he honestly thinks comedy is only comedy if at someone’s expense, which he admittedly does, makes you wonder if he even understands the movie he made that is literally about the evil of a society that functions at Arthur’s expense. Not to mention all his accidental success curbed better films from Academy attention, namely Uncut Gems for best picture and Greta Gerwig for director.
4) Kevin Spacey – Real Life
One of the more disappointing Hollywood heavies hit in the sexual allegation storm over the past couple years was two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who once allegations were made against him was almost instantaneously removed from his iconic role as Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (a show I personally adored even through its later seasons) and scrubbed from the industry. However in a bizarre turn, Spacey didn’t just go silently into the night; instead he proceeded to release a series of unsettling videos on his YouTube channel reprising his Frank Underwood persona, directly addressing the viewer the way he did on his Netflix series – only this time it wasn’t fiction. Even more suspect is the fact that a number of his accusers have turned up dead, resulting in at least one of the lawsuits against him being dropped. If there hasn’t been any investigation into foul play there probably should be after the way he stressed “killing them with kindness” so ironically in his last video before the new year.
3) Capitalism – Parasite/Knives Out/Hustlers/Uncut Gems/Ready or Not/Us/Joker
Whether explicitly stated or not, the hottest films of 2019 have a thread in common: Capitalism-induced peril. From Parasite to Hustlersto Us, none could escape Capitalism’s cold, all-consuming embrace, not without some kind of radical retaliation – or dying. Regardless of any single protagonist’s end success or failure, the fact remains that the manufactured reality they find themselves trapped perpetually threatens to destroy them. There’s nothing more terrifying than virulent ideology buttressed by hegemonic cognitive dissonance, expect maybe the desperate rage it spawns in its wake.
2) JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio – Star Wars Ep. IX: Rise of Skywalker
After The Last Jedi backlash, which was completely misguided in every way, shape, and form, it seems the powers that be at Disney were more interested in attempting to make amends with the bad faith critics than to respect the fans who actually like the sequel trilogy. The result? The rehiring of JJ Abrams and fresh hiring of Chris Terrio, fated screenwriter of critical darlings Batman v Superman and Justice League (if you can sense the sarcasm). Rise of Skywalker isn’t just a bad movie with a bad title, it’s an embarrassment and disservice to all involved in all three sequel films. The promising work JJ himself put in with episode 7 as well as the compelling developments in Rian Johnson’s groundbreaking episode 8, the best Star Wars movie, was effectively erased by terrible creative decision after terrible creative decision from both Abrams and Terrio, who both re-wrote episode 9 after Colin Trevorrow’s departure. The unique character of Rey is thrown away for a trite, nonsensical, literally-makes-no-sense lineage arc that does nothing but destroy all of her development prior. Rose Tico, who was introduced in Last Jedi, is shamelessly cut out from the narrative to give one of JJ’s pals her lines and screen time. Palpatine is randomly the main villain again out of the blue, with the only explanation offered being a throwaway line that “he returned somehow”. The Last Jedi set the stage for an open sequel in such a way that there was no excuse to come up with what Abrams and Terrio came up with other than just bad creative instincts. If they couldn’t even muster a coherent narrative with the clean slate Rian Johnson left them, I don’t know what to say other than they should be kept far away from any franchise work for the foreseeable future. Their grief cost countless sequel-trilogy fans closure to what a lot of non-reactionary fans (myself included) felt was to be the strongest trilogy of the three, but not even the prequels had this sharp a decline in quality. Don’t expect these wounds to heal anytime soon.
1) Disney – The Film Industry
Disney owned approximately 80% of the top box office in 2019. If that doesn’t deeply concern you, it should. After it’s buyout of 20th Century Fox, Disney has effectively built a monopoly over the box office. Not only does the Mouse now own the most profitable Marvel properties (now they have the rights to X-Men, Deadpool, and the Fantastic Four too), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, its native catalog of animated properties, not to mention Pixar properties like Toy Story and The Incredibles, but they also now have James Cameron’s Avatar franchise, that until Avengers: Endgame‘s bow earlier in the year was the highest grossing film of all time. Capitalism’s critical flaw and most essential characteristic is its inevitable tendency to form monopolies. That’s very good for Disney execs, but very bad for everyone else. With fewer individuals in charge of what gets produced for the big screen, creative diversity in the medium is endangered in favor of profit motive. For instance, there’s nothing to stop Disney flooding theater screens with their films (notice the 50+ showings at every theater when the next Avengers or Star Wars comes out) because they can afford to. Theater lovers who relish experiencing the full breadth of film are at serious risk of losing that, and we’re already seeing its effects. The competitive mode is a fallacy and a dangerous one at that. Even with indie studios like A24 and Annapurna almost single-handedly keeping Film alive, the future is not looking too bright.
The Lighthouse Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes Director: Robert Eggers Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, and Valeriia Karaman
A24 vanguard director Robert Eggers follows up his astute historical horror piece The Witch (2015) with another like-genre feature The Lighthouse. Swapping out the desolate New England forest for a desolate New England island, The Lighthouse finds Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in scenery-chewing roles as lighthouse keepers pushed to the ends of their wits. Thomas Wake (Dafoe), supervisor and elder of the two, hordes all of the relaxed lighthouse observation time, leaving the hard, menial work for the young new wickie Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), whose mysterious past haunts his day to day rounds.
The Lighthouse is a much more accessible beast than The Witch, whose esoteric verisimilitude turned off most casual horror hounds not so much looking for the history lesson. Those that could hang with the latter will likely find the former to be just as meticulous in its setting, and its two-hander play the more engaging tale to follow (though not to knock The Witch). While Dafoe and Pattinson don’t really start playing off each other until later in the film, their naturalistic oddities well-round out the rich, maritime tapestry Eggers has laid out.
Absolutely my favorite thing about The Lighthouse is its way of messing with you. Wake and Winslow are mysterious characters in their own air, both as susceptible to being the other’s prey as they are predator. Who has the proverbial upper hand is on the oscillating whim of spirit highs and lows, brought on by stormy nights and insistent drinking. These kind of stories always involve some big motive or plot reveal. What is it here? Wake warns of ill-fortune to those who harm the aggressive lighthouse seagulls for they house the souls of perished sailors; which obviously means Winslow will defy his superstitious warning at some point. The film urges us to constantly try to catch its angle and just when you think you know where it’s going, the dynamic tides again, before landing on a poetically telegraphed allegory that Greek mythology buffs should be able to call once it shows its head.
The Lighthouse is one of the most essential films of 2019; its delightful, dastardly comedy befitting of a growingly barren content-scape in the wake of studio buyouts. Let yourself be drawn in and tranced away by something different.
Joker Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes Director: Todd Phillips Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen
19 days post-Joker release and the final verdict is in: the people like Joker, maybe a bit too much, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t take me wrong, the neoliberal establishment and I do not share concerns over this film. You won’t find any alt-right dog whistles or provocations of mass murder anywhere in Hangover director Todd Phillips’ Joker movie. Instead you’ll find a compelling-enough illustration of the consequential failure of capitalism and austerity politics. What radicalizes Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) into the evil Joker isn’t insanity or enraged entitlement (like the Wall Street goons Fleck kills in self-defense early on), it’s the socio-political and economic disdain towards the impoverished made hegemonic by the elite that specifically precipitates his “descent.”
Todd Phillips’ Joker follows vaguely-employed clown and aspiring stand-up comic Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who’s quickly approaching the end of his proverbial rope. He makes a meager living waving around going-out-of-business signs and entertaining hospital children to support his ailing mother, played by Frances Conroy (American Horror Story), who like him, suffers from socially debilitating mental illness. Arthur’s mother is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), your template neoliberal billionaire running for mayor in Gotham who also happens to be our main connection to the Batman/extended DC universe Phillips and company have been trying so hard to distance themselves from. Regardless, Thomas Wayne – and his son Bruce in a mostly passive capacity – plays a pretty major part in Arthur’s “transformation.” I quote that last word because the film’s job of conveying that ideological transformation is where the greatest faults lie.
The popular discourse around Joker has been aggravating to say the least. Lots of bad faith assessments both for and against Phillips’ frankly confused picture. The director’s public statements dishonestly blaming “the Left” for the neoliberal media’s absurd slant on the provocative tent-pole as well as his lazy excuse of “woke culture” sullying his ability to make comedies do Joker‘s thesis no favors, only obfuscating an otherwise transgressive piece of relevant mass media. That said, the existential panic around the film destroying society isn’t entirely unjustified; capitalist actors are right to impulsively vilify Joker for its revolutionary narrative context. The back drop of the film sees the city in the midst of rising class warfare, with protest signs in the background calling to “kill the rich” and point capitalism out by name, but Phillips makes an odd choice to downplay the political moment in favor of Fleck’s various preoccupations, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the very notion of a broken system broken in the name of exploitation wasn’t the crux of the film’s climatic talk-show scene. Whether Phillips is ill-equipped to confidently deal in the subject matter or simply has no idea what he’s doing doesn’t matter to glean the film’s visceral opportunity to rage against this unjustly manufactured society and those who buttress it.
Joker is nowhere near a complete lost cause, but it’s no crowning achievement of cinema either. At best, it’s literally the only current era comic book film to even vaguely challenge the nature of the status quo. That’s good enough for me.
*If you liked ‘Joker’ check out Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994) and my piece on that film here!
The end of August saw the coincidental (re)releases of the The Matrix (1999) and Midsommar (2019); the former in celebration of its 20 year anniversary as a landmark cultural milestone and the latter as a kind of victory lap from an indie film studio on an impeccable genre streak.You can find my review of Midsommar here; to be brief, I found Ari Aster’s sophomore effort to be a less-urgent, albeit quieter and deadlier affectation of modernity’s spell. Dani’s trip down the pagan rabbit hole of the macabre Hårga tradition in the director’s cut of the film occasioning the re-release, nicely parallels that of Neo in his awakening from the literal dreamwork of the Matrix, a computer simulation of neoliberal society maintained in the real world by an intelligent machine race. Two lost souls desperate for connection, Dani and Neo take the curious leap into the perilous unknown.
Nearly all of the discourse I’ve come across around Midsommar – and The Matrix in other significant ways – seem to not know what to do with the films’ political implications nor the ramifications of their thematic ends. **spoilers ahead** Dani’s relationship woes don’t as much stem from her emotionally stunted boyfriend Christian, but a broken social system necessarily dependent on the alienation of its subjects. Likewise to The Matrix, Neo’s existential choice between ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill,’ when taken in its correct, neoliberal context, is a brutally honest denouncement of the entrancing, hegemonic complacency that is capitalist realism. The Matrix itself is a means of completely severing the human mind from its reality by supplanting a new one. Even when plugged out of the Matrix, Neo struggles to escape the restrictive consciousness learned in his virtual imprisonment. “There is no spoon.” We are only as limited as our consciousness. Our accepted breadth of possibilities must be fluid to our distinctive needs as autonomous individuals. Dani is clearly more suited among the Hårga than her own American countryfolk despite her repulsion for the casual ritualistic violence, but violence is more than blood and gore. By the end, Dani and Neo are born anew through death set forth a bright, limitless future.