Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey

By: Kevin Jordan

Don’t oversell it.

Watching a DC Extended Universe (DCEU) movie is a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football. Every time you line up the kick, she promises that, this time, she won’t pull it away. By now, you have slipped four discs in your spine, bruised your tailbone, dislocated a hip, and eaten as much grass as a goat. But, you are going to try again, remembering that one time the DCEU was a little slow to yank the Wonder Woman ball away and you grazed it. You think “one of these days, she is going to keep her promise and that kick is going to feel sweet.” Well, either Lucy fell asleep on the job or that day is upon us because Birds of Prey finally fulfilled that promise.

(Side note: the subtitle of Birds of Prey is The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. To continue with my tortured Peanuts gang analogy, that subtitle was DCEU thinking really hard about seeing you land on your ass again. Also, mild SPOILERS ahead.)

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a bit of a perfectionist. When I point out problems with movies and people accuse me of nit-picking, my immediate response is “Hello…movie critic.” Picking apart movies is literally the job. What one might see as a good movie whose flaws should be ignored, I see as a solid first draft that needs to be polished in order to be great. Birds of Prey definitely needs some Pledge.

I will start off by saying that Birds of Prey is a very fun, very entertaining movie. Considering the DCEU’s track record, Birds of Prey seems like a priceless work of art following the tornado of toe jam that is the entire DCEU minus Wonder Woman. Incidentally, Wonder Woman was also no better than a solid first draft, but I digress. The film captures the insanity of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) through its structure, bouncing between past and present with Harley narrating everything for us. It is manic and discombobulated, but somehow manages not to cross the line into obnoxious. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and the movie incorporates some well-timed and funny comedic relief. The characters are fun and engaging and not once do we see Jared Leto’s Joker appear on screen. If this is the limit of your interest in deconstructing a movie, great. Thank you for reading and please thank the ushers on your way out.

If you are here for some fun, you’ve come to the right place.

But look past the surface for a moment and you will start to see that the flaws in this film are much more than just nits. Every character has writing issues. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is missing a backstory and gets a superpower with barely any development (she shatters a glass while singing, which is not even remotely an indication that she has super-scream powers, not to mention no other glasses broke in the room). Huntress, a.k.a. the cross-bow killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is a stone-cold assassin until the movie tries to make her an awkward nerd. Plus, she seems to be completely unaware of the mythical diamond belonging to her own family, instead, focused solely on revenge for her family’s murder. Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), only wears his mask at the very end of the film, for no reason other than to remind the viewer that he has an alias (which is completely pointless since everyone knows who Black Mask is and we never see him do anything as Black Mask until the climax). The hyena is never used other than as a sight gag. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is an aged, maybe-alcoholic that suddenly is able to kick ass with the best of them despite barely any development of said ass-kicking skills beyond a drunken fight with Harley. Harley can kick the hell out of dozens of toughs, but struggles with the drunk-detective (to be fair, this is typical of action movies).

Why?

In addition to the character issues, the production and screenplay have a couple of problems. While most of the fight scenes are executed well, the climactic fight scene is over-choreographed, forcing everyone to fight in a room full of over-the-top obstacles, not to mention the editing is disorienting, frequently jumping back and forth between multiple fights. Then, after dispatching the first round of bad guys, why do all of them just walk out of the building as a group when they know a bunch more bad guys, including Black Mask are waiting for them, leading to the least surprising shooting in the history of film? At one point, they stage a person-whipping-motorcycle sequence (based on roller derby) which causes the motorcycle to crash for no reason. Maybe the most egregious flaw is how the R-rating is mostly wasted, as there is almost no blood-spatter, zero nudity, but plenty of f-bombs. Birds of Prey clearly wants to be DC-Deadpool, but manages to come off as if it has never seen Deadpool.  Somehow, this movie manages to not do enough, while also doing way too much.

If only you could rip a few people to shreds. Oh yesh.

Conversely, it does a bunch of smaller things well. The movie is aware of itself with some fourth-wall breaks (again invoking Deadpool), it stops one scene to have a character ask when Harley had time to put on roller skates during a fight, another scene shows Huntress practicing her “do you know how I am?” line in the mirror, and most importantly, the majority of the action scenes treat the women as characters instead of women. Plus, the actors are clearly having fun, especially McGregor, who seems like he has been waiting to play a super villain since Jar Jar Binks crossed his path.

If you have made this far, you can see how a movie appears to me. Maybe I am too critical sometimes, but you try forgivingc flaws after watching and writing about seventy-five movies a year. Like I said, I am a bit of a perfectionist and I am not willing to settle for merely okay or good when a movie can clearly be improved upon. That does not mean I still don’t enjoy the hell out of movies because I really did enjoy the hell out of Birds of Prey. It just means I am not going to gush over movies that only look awesome because the other movies standing around them smell like my son’s feet after two hours of basketball.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back or at least a spit-shine.

I, Tonya

I, Tonya

By: Kevin Jordan

A little bit.

(It’s award consideration season and I’m playing catch-up.  As I tear through them, I thought I’d try mini-reviews.  Enjoy!)

In 1994, Tonya Harding was the most hated person in America (well, at least until O.J. Simpson went for a drive in his white Bronco).  In 2017, anyone who watches I, Tonya is going to have at least the tiniest change of heart unless you are dead inside.  I’m not excusing her role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, but after watching I, Tonya, I was forced to remind myself that she is a human person.  I, Tonya is a biography of Tonya Harding (brilliantly portrayed by Margot Robbie) from childhood through her conviction and ban from figure skating.  According to the screenwriter (Steven Rogers), everything we see in the movie is based on interviews with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, also brilliant).  The construction of the film and the writing have you constantly wondering what the true story is by giving us two different versions of the same story as told by two people whose best interests lie in making themselves look as good as possible.  I loved looking for the common threads in the two stories to try to make sense out of what happened, including motivations and psyches.  Was Gillooly truly as abusive as Harding claims?  Was Gillooly really just trying to scare Kerrigan with death threats, not masterminding (and I use that word very loosely) a physical attack?  Was Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney and brilliant undersells her performance), really the monster we see on the screen?  Did we all really look and dress like that in 1994?  All great questions with multiple answers to choose from, depending on who you want to believe.  But, between the story we are told and Robbie’s performance (especially at the trial), I finished the movie feeling just a little bit sympathetic for Harding.  Just a little bit.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back, not even a little bit.

Suicide Squad

By: Kevin Jordan

A eulogy for the DC film universe.

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As I was pondering what to write about DC Comics’ latest movie, early reviews for the film started to trickle out and let’s just say that the DC fanboys weren’t happy with it.  This is an actual headline from an article on USAToday, dated August 4, 2016:

“Critics slam ‘Suicide Squad,’ so fans try to shut down Rotten Tomatoes.”  Here’s the story for your amusement.

In short, a person called Abdullah Coldwater started a change.org petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes because, to paraphrase he and the 18,494 other people who signed the petition, “critics are big poopy-heads.”  Forget about the fact that such a petition carries no ability to actual do or force what it’s calling for, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t actually have a staff that reviews movies.  It’s just a place where reviews (that meet a certain set of requirements revolving around quantity of site views or number of publications) are linked to so people have a central place to find them and tallies up all the ratings to get an aggregate score.  I’m guessing these geniuses doesn’t understand that.  Nor do they seem to know that Metacritic and IMDb exist – both of which do the same thing and both of which have similarly low aggregate scores for the film – because they aren’t calling for those sites to be shut down as well.  But here’s where it gets even more fun – Warner Brothers owns the DC film rights and also owns a share of RT.  So, even if RT really was responsible for the bad reviews, why would Warner Brothers publish bad reviews of its own movie?  Like I said, geniuses.

(Note: To his credit, as of yesterday, Coldwater ended the petition himself, stating: “In fact i started this petition to gather dc fans to express our anger just for fun. I didn’t mean it to be taken that serious.

After thinking. I found this petition is pointless. And the only thing that it does is spreading a speech of hate and online fighting among the supporters and objectors . The movies is something to enjoy. And the hate and fight is the opposite of enjoying.”)

The question I have for those 18,000+ people is “have you actually seen the movie?”  I am often at odds with many opinions of other critics, but I have never accused them of being idiots prior to seeing a movie for myself.  I’ve seen Suicide Squad and I agree with the majority of critics – it’s not a good film.  It’s certainly not a Batman v Superman spectacle of shit, but it’s the final strike for me in hoping that DC was going to spend any time developing the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) they’ve been touting and that sucks.

Here’s the short version of my review, in case you have somewhere else to be – if all you want to see are a handful of DC bad guys shooting at things for two hours while classic rock songs are played over the action, this movie works.  It’s every first-person shooter game you’ve ever played – kill hundreds of foot soldiers while running through destruction to fight the final boss at the end.

Now the long version (and, yes, SPOILERS, but there really isn’t anything to spoil.  I’ll explain).

Suicide Squad should have been a tee-ball given the premise – a team of really bad villains is assembled to combat existential, global threats.  Awe!  Some!  But then the movie starts.  The first ten minutes of the film are devoted to introducing us to the Squad.  You read that right – TEN minutes to make you love and identify with eight characters, the bulk of which is devoted to just two of them, Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).  And, we get it in the form of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the person who wants to build the team, reading us files on how each of them was caught over dinner with some other government stiff (not so awesome).  Even worse, when she first names the character, a bunch of text appears on the screen that describes the character, but is pulled from the screen so fast we’re lucky to catch even half of it.  What a waste.

The only two characters that matter.

The only two characters that matter.

Cut to a briefing room where Waller is trying to convince an admiral to approve funding for the team with the following rationale – “What if Superman decided to rip the roof off the Capitol?  There are more and more meta-humans showing up every day and we want them on our side.”  To emphasize this point, she calls upon archaeologist Dr. June Moone, (Cara Delevingne) – that’s actually her name – to demonstrate.  You see, the good doctor has been possessed by a 6,000-year old Mayan witch called Enchantress who is super evil and can teleport (among many other things) anywhere she wants.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that?  Enchantress teleports, stealing a top secret file from a vault in Iran in moments and the admiral is immediately convinced, even though he was just telling us how bad an idea this sounded like.  And he’s right because, how do they control Enchantress?  They’ve got her heart in a box and Waller stabs it with a pen whenever Enchantress starts to get out of line.  Seriously, that’s her control method and there’s nothing special about the box.  But don’t worry, the box has a lid.  And it’s in the room with them where Enchantress can see it.  And Enchantress doesn’t just snatch it up right then and there, even though the remainder of the movie is Enchantress wanting her heart back so she can destroy the human race with a giant glowing trash circle in the sky.  One more thing about Enchantress, she can decide to take full control of Dr. Moone whenever she feels like it and isn’t confined to a room or 24-hour surveillance.  The name June Moone doesn’t sound like the dumbest thing in this movie anymore, does it?

I, too, thought Joker was supposed to be the villain of this movie.

I, too, thought Joker was supposed to be the villain of this movie.

To answer your questions, yes, the Squad is tasked with stopping Enchantress and, yes, this whole mess was started by the very person putting the team together to stop messes like this.  How this make any sense?  Or Enchantress at all, for that matter?   Does she have to stay in the archaeologist’s body?  And why isn’t she chipped with the explosive?  And even if she was, couldn’t she just possess literally anybody else, including Viola Davis?  It also appears that she can manifest herself whenever she wants, so how does Viola Davis think she has any kind of control over her?  And again, if enchantress can teleport, why doesn’t she immediately jet with the heart as soon as she knows where the heart is?

Putting aside that awful bit of writing, let’s evaluate this team to find out if they can combat a witch that can teleport, has telekinesis, turns people into deadly soldier things, can conjure up magic that can destroy the world, and is basically immortal.  Just ignore the fact that the entire problem can be solved at any time by Waller destroying the heart.

-Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) – no super powers, team leader, special ops soldier, has phone app that can trigger explosive devices in the necks of bad guy team members.  Oh, and did I mention that June is his girlfriend, because Waller needed June to seduce him so Waller could blackmail him into working for her?

-Deadshot – no super powers, but can shoot real good, and quip even gooder.

-Harley Quinn – no super powers, but is crazy and swings a mean Louisville slugger.  Also, comic relief, eye candy, and a convenient excuse needed to justify Joker (Jared Leto) being in this movie.

-Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – no super powers, can hold his breath for a long time, is a great swimmer, and looks like a crocodile.  Sure, this guy will come in handy.

Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) – shut up.  That’s not really a character is it?  It is?  Shut up.

-Slipknot – no super powers, can climb real good.  Seems like a climber wouldn’t want the word slip in his name.

-Diablo (Jay Hernandez) – the one character with legitimate super powers – can shoot fire out of his hands and face.  Except, he has to get really mad, otherwise he just stands there watching (really, this happens).

-Katana (Karen Fukuhara) – not an actual bad guy.  She’s friends with Flag, is there as an extra precaution against the bad guy team members should they not cooperate, and has a sword that traps the souls of its victims.  Sure, why the fuck not?

-Dozens of special forces soldiers – hang on, why are these guys here?  The whole concept of the team, as described in detail by Viola Davis, is that they will be sent into impossible situations and disavowed if they fail.  So, why put actual soldiers outside of Flag with them?  Are they considered expendable as well?  And if you have all those soldiers, why do you need the Squad at all?

We're with you Katana - we don't know why he's here either.

We’re with you Katana – we don’t know why he’s here either.

So, that’s the Squad, and if we do the math – carry the one, divide by the ratio of soldiers to villains, multiply the number of superpowers by pi – we see that there is no fucking way this team can defeat Enchantress, let alone someone like Superman.  The movie even acknowledges this when, after kick-fighting with the squad for a while, Enchantress gets bored and disarms them all with a wave of her hand.  Yes, my friend and I both laughed when this happened because it literally nullifies the entire preceding hour of fighting.

If there’s a redeeming quality, it’s that Smith and Robbie lead the cast in what are all solid performances.  Robbie and Smith are both doing everything possible to save this movie, delivering some decent one-liners at times and keeping the film from becoming a complete slog of action.  It’s also painfully obvious that the movie was set up to feature them and only them.  Look no further than the costumes to see how little care was given to the characters not named Deadshot and Harley Quinn.  Deadshot gets a red body suit covered in armor, complete with a white mask and targeting eye-piece.  Quinn gets a full-body costume consisting of skimpy shorts and cheeky shirt, colored hair and face, and symbols and words all over her body.  Killer Croc, Diablo and Boomerang are all wearing jeans and a jacket.  Even Flag, who gets plenty of screen time, is almost indistinguishable from the random special forces soldiers assigned to the group.  I suppose you could make a case for Joker and Enchantress, both of whom were given far more visual appeal, but neither were in the movie enough to mistake them for equals to Smith and Robbie.  My complaint isn’t that this happened, but that it happened with no pre-work done.  Marvel wrote the freaking playbook, use it.  This movie should have been a follow-up to standalone movies for Deadshot and Harley Quinn (both of which I would absolutely watch…well, as long as Zach Snyder isn’t involved).

You can tell who they are by their jacket.

You can tell who they are by their jacket.

Look, I know I’m being a little harsh, but this movie suffers from the same problems as BvS and Man of Steel.  My friends didn’t think I should completely trash the movie, but the more I let the movie fester in my brain, the more I realized it was worse than I originally thought.  Nothing is happening for any logical reason, the characters are woefully underdeveloped (TEN MINUTES), the reason for the team existing at all is a self-fulfilling prophecy, any world building of a DCEU is non-existent, the structure of the opening of the film exists solely to justify the music, the team’s abilities don’t come close to their opponent’s, and the tie-ins to the other DC movies are painfully clunky and forced.  The worst thing about the movie is that these bad guys never actually do anything bad, which was kind of the whole freaking point of making this movie in the first place.  I’m not saying I hated this movie (it’s the best of DC’s three DCEU movies so far); I’m just disappointed that DC has crapped the bed yet again in an attempt to shortcut their way to what took Marvel thirteen movies to do.  Rest in peace DCEU, we never even got to know you.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back if you are not one of the people that signed the shut-down-RT petition.  I know 18,000+ who will love this film.

 

The Legend of Tarzan

By: Kevin Jordan

Dueling jungle flicks.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

Let’s play a little game I like to call “Bwaaaa?”  In this episode, we will be looking at a couple of critics’ responses to two movies that are similar in far too many ways, but at least have different plots – The Jungle Book (JB) and The Legend of Tarzan (LT).  In other words, they should have roughly the same ratings, all things considered.  It’s a simple game – I say stuff and you try not to say bwaaaa or smack your forehead.  Here we go.  First, we’ll level set the movies.

  • Both movies center on a male human raised by jungle animals.
  • Both movies are heavily reliant on CGI animals and CGI jungle.
  • Both movies are based on stories written more than 100 years ago (JB – 1894; LT – 1919).
  • Both movies were released within three months of each other this year.

Now, here are the current ratings scores for the two films.

  • Rotten Tomatoes – 95% for JB; 30% for LT.
  • Metacritic – 77% for JB; 41% for LT.

I expect you’ve uttered at least one bwaaaa to this point, but now the real fun begins.  Let’s start with Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, beginning with the review titles.

JB – “The Jungle Book more than just bare necessities.”

LT – “The Legend of Tarzan retells old tale, but why?”

Right away, you can see that Mr. Howell has a massive double standard or was drunk when he wrote those titles.  JB unabashedly retells its original story (or at least the animated movie’s story) with very minor tweaks, but Mr. Howell chooses to ignore that for JB.  And, he doubles down in the opening of each review.

JB – “The laws of nature and animals are much discussed in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, but only one rule really applies: Don’t screw it up.  Happily, the spirit of the beloved 1967 animated classic survives and even thrives as live-action drama, directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau.”

LT – “It’s possible, even likely, that more effort was expended on sculpting Alexander Skarsgard’s abs for The Legend of Tarzan than on providing good reason why the movie was made.”

Why does this happen?  Why excuse one movie, but not the other?  Well, maybe he at least acknowledges they both have great CGI.

JB – “Photo-realistic animals replace familiar cartoon characters with the fidelity you’d expect from a National Geographic special.”

LT – “Magnificent abs they are: a sculpted six-pack that could bounce not just a gold coin but an entire bag of them.  They’re also among the few things that actually look real, in a film so larded with CGI, little appears to have any weight or substance within the hazy grey-green digital foliage.”

That looks totally real.

That looks totally real.

Are you kidding me?  Other than a slightly different color palate (green-gray versus gray-green) and talking animals, they have the same quality of CGI, especially the animals.  Ok, last chance – he has to at least agree that both feature well-worn stories that should elicit virtually no reaction other than noting them, right?

JB – “The story nods to the familiar with its coming-of-age tale of loin-clothed Mowgli leaving the wolf pack and striking out on his own.”

LT – “In telling for the umpteenth time the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn of a noble Englishman raised by apes in “savage” Africa,”

Alright, enough.  I’ve read some hack pieces before, but Mr. Howell has put together some really shitty reviews (and I’m using the word “reviews” very loosely) that are clearly biased for no reason he’s willing to explain, especially considering he spent a grand total of eleven sentences discussing LT and twelve sentences on JB.  That’s barely enough space to summarize a movie (which is essentially what he’s doing), let alone give an honest and informative review.

Let’s move on to our other contestant, Richard Roeper (yes, that Richard Roeper).  To be fair, Mr. Roeper rates LT as adequate and entertaining, but still goes way over the top with JB on certain aspects that are no better than LT.  Case in point, the CGI:

JB – “…but thanks to director Jon Favreau’s visionary guidance and some of the most impressive blends of live-action and CGI we’ve yet seen, “The Jungle Book” is a beautifully rendered, visually arresting take…Every drop of rain, every cracking tree branch, every swaying tree and (most impressively) every jungle creature in the film looks amazingly real”

LT – “Which brings us to perhaps the most serious drawback of the film: the jungle creatures. They’re all CGI, and far too many times, they look VERY CGI. Some of the apes have more animated facial expressions than mid-1990s Jim Carrey, while ostriches, the aforementioned lions, hippos and other creatures look great from a distance but not so believable when the humans are “interacting” with them.”

Maybe he missed the part with the giant orangutan (King Louie) that easily looked as CGI as anything LT had to offer.  Or the gigantic snake (Ka).  Or when Mowgli runs into the butt of an animal at the watering hole.  I’m sorry, but you don’t get to complain about the facial expressions on apes or interactions of lions with a human in one fantasy movie, but then be okay with a singing, dancing bear emoting like a human (watch the honey scene again) in another fantasy movie.  How’s your forehead now?

That looks totally fake.

That looks totally fake.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to give yourself a concussion.  So, here’s my take.

Many of the critics seem to be hung up on the fact that LT includes little sidebars on several societal topics (slavery, exploitation of Africa, greed), convincing themselves that the story is muddled and can’t decide what it wants to be, even though the story couldn’t be more straightforward – bad guys want to exploit a region and its people so as to get filthy rich and good guys want to stop them.  Toss in classic tropes ‘damsel in distress,’ ‘reluctant hero,’ and ‘plucky sidekick’ and we’ve got ourselves a standard adventure movie, complete with a mustachioed villain who kills people the same way as Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4.  All of those side topics are exactly that – side topics, so of course they aren’t fully fleshed out.  This isn’t that kind of movie nor should it be.

Performance-wise, I don’t think they could have cast any better.  Alexander Skarsgard (Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane), Christoph Waltz (evil villain), and Samuel L. Jackson (plucky sidekick) are all good in their respective roles.  Skarsgard is believable as an incredibly-cut, raised by apes, jungle man who just wants to save his wife.  Robbie gives us a Jane who isn’t just a helpless damsel in distress, defiant to her captors and sometimes to Tarzan, and a person we care enough about that we want her to be saved.  Waltz delivers a villain who is two parts slime and two parts cunning – a villain we want to see trampled by wildebeasts as much as we want to see Jane rescued.  And, Jackson delivers some much needed comic relief as only he can – blending Nick Fury’s dry wit with Jules Winnfield’s serious wit to keep this movie from plunging into a morass of brooding and chest thumping.

To be fair, LT does have some issues, but they are minor.  The scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the jungle feel a little over the top, as Tarzan is whipping around as fast as Spider-Man (at one point, we are told a train they are swinging to is moving at 40 miles an hour).  I also didn’t buy the villain’s suggested infatuation with Jane as his reason for hanging on to her even after she served her purpose (he has zero ties to her, not even a newspaper clipping he might have had of her since she was quasi-famous).  I’m not excusing those little things, but they weren’t enough to torpedo the movie for me.  One thing I did like was how well they intertwined Tarzan’s origin story into the film (through flashbacks) without making it the focal point of the narrative.

Eye candy for all.

Eye candy for all.

Looking back at my review of JB, I had no issues with the plot of the movie or some of the technical elements.  My issue was that it was almost a straight remake of the cartoon, but lacked a lot of the charm of that cartoon.  What makes LT a more recommendable film is that previous incarnations of Tarzan have been silly and are completely unwatchable in 2016 and LT is a very adequate movie.  Conversely, the JB cartoon is still very watchable and the 2016 live-action JB has a worse ending.  It also helps that LT is much more obviously aimed at adults (and Skarsgard and Robbie are absurdly gorgeous humans if all you want is eye candy) because I am an adult.  But when it comes down to comparing these two movies, do not let the aggregate ratings sites fool you – The Legend of Tarzan is easily as entertaining as The Jungle Book and neither is telling you a story you haven’t already seen many times over.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to put some ice on that.