“Birds of Prey” Full Movie Review

Harley Quinn Returns. Warner Bros. and DC’s Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (from hereon out Birds of Prey, haha) is energetic, entertaining, and electrifying! Margot Robbie is a knockout! This out of this world comicbook movie is well written and directed, and even has an intimate feel in the foreground on the backdrop of outrageous, larger than life chaos. Par for the course in Gotham. Fortunately for this movie, most of the footage from the trailer was taken from the first few minutes of the movie. So, you never feel as though you’ve seen whole thing in the trailer. If Batman Returns and Deadpool had a baby, and that baby’s nanny was Kill Bill, then this is the movie that you would get! It has the brilliant camp and production design factors with the sass and action of the former two, along with the strength and determination of the latter. A winning combination, considering that Batman Returns is the best Batman movie of all time (and yes, I will die on that hill). While the trailer may make this seem like an ensemble cast for most of the movie, it really is about Harley Quinn with the other characters coming into play more significantly in the latter half of the movie. This was a strategic move by the writer and director in order for the the movie to be driven by the fallout of the breakup between Harley and Mr. J, that anti-hero anarchist spirit, and high energy optimism that defines Quinn. What we have here is a good, solid story. Yes there is the theme of female empowerment and sisterhood, but that is on the nose. The real power of this movie, and why Suicide Squad cannot even hold a candle to it, is the thoughtful story, precision plotting, and character driven conflict with plenty of reactions. Birds of Prey takes what we have grown accustomed to in comicbook movies (both DCEU and Marvel), and places it in that semitruck at the beginning of the movie, then watches as all the rules and tropes explode as the truck collides into the chemical plant! No tortured psyches, skybeams, sense of duty, or derivative action sequences here, Birds of Prey delivers explosive action and hilarious antics! All this and more awaits you in this beautiful mess of a movie.

It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other thug in the city. But things soon even out for Harley when she becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women — Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez)–in their respective efforts to locate the expert pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). (IMDb summary)

If Quintin Tarantino was to direct a comicbook movie, this is precisely the kind of movie that he would write and direct. Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) certainly seem to have channeled their love of the films of Tarantino and Waititi in the development the outstanding screenplay for Birds of Prey. It has the non-linear storytelling and violence of Tarantino paired with the tongue-in-cheekness and characterizations of Waititi. From journalist and graduate student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts to directing a major motion picture for global brands such as Warner Bros. and DC, Yan is certainly a director to watch as she continues to grow in her career. She is the kind of director that DC needs in order to develop comicbook/superhero movies that are highly engaging yet have a great deal of heart. Although I did not know the screenwriter of Bumblebee was also the writer for this movie, in retrospect, I can completely see it! Hodson knows how to craft a thoughtful story in the middle of explosive action, all the while, keeping the focus on the characters whose conflict drives the story. On the surface, this may seem like an action-driven story, but in all reality it is character driven at its core.

While some may find (and have found) the narrative exposition and nonlinear storytelling to be distracting, I find that the combination makes perfect sense for how the plot is being laid out for us; it works very well for this movie. There are similarities between the tone of Deadpool and Birds of Prey but they are different movie experiences. Each uses narrative exposition, but use that tool in different ways. Deadpool engages in breaking the fourth wall in a very Mystery Science Theatre or RiffTrax way, whereas Harley Quinn uses it in a diegetic manner. Same tool, but expressed very differently. I greatly appreciate how Quinn used this narrative device in the same way that you and I tell stories to our friends. How often have you found yourself telling recalling an event from your life and telling that story to your friends, and you get to a point at which you realize you need to preface something, and then jump back to setup that point? Probably a lot of the time! I know I certainly do. It’s like you’re so excited to get to a point in the story, but then you forget that your friends need to know what happened to setup why its important or significant. And that is precisely what Quinn is doing with her narration and what the director and writer did with the setup of the main action plot. The method that the story is laid out in front of us is a very organic way of oral storytelling. When you orally communicate a story, there is no edit button, back space, page jumps, or anything else that we use in writing to linearly tell a story (linearly being the most conventional). So yes, it is nonlinear, but otherwise it would not feel as relatable or natural.

We have both wonderfully entertaining performances and well-developed characters! The strength of this movie is built upon the characters and the conflict therein. While we do spend most of the movie with Quinn, we are methodically introduced to key characters that effect the main action plot subplot along the way. Quinn’s external goal is to retrieve the Bertinelli diamond, which is driven by her internal need for a relationship. While I won’t go into details as to how she eventually retrieves the famed diamond, as I do not want it get into spoiler territory, I will comment on her internal need for a relationship that drives the main action plot. She is longing for a relationship after Mr. J. dumps her. She feels an emptiness inside. Ironically, she desires to belong to something or someone. Ironic in that a harlequin lives to serve. What she could never have known is that she would find the sense of belonging in the relationships she forms with our supporting cast of characters that she encounters along the journey to retrieve the diamond. What she finds is NOT a romantic relationship, but a sisterhood that provides her with all the love she needs and a group to whom she can love in return. None of us (or most of us, anyway) want to be alone; we want relationships in our lives. Many find that through romantic relationships while others find it through close friendships. Sometimes both, if you’re fortunate in that way. Between her pet hyena, a pick pocket, and the newly formed group Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn’s internal need for relationship is met beautifully! It’s also this subtext that creates that intimate story amidst the backdrop of chaos.

I mentioned Batman Returns in my opening paragraph. And if you’ve seen the movie, you may be wondering why and where does Birds of Prey have elements that nod to and remind me of Tim Burton’s masterful Batman movie. Clearly, if you are wondering, then you (1) haven’t seen the greatest of all Batman movies or (2) have forgotten about the incredible art of Batman Returns. For starters, Quinn’s costume choices are very much Burton-inspired and there are several moments of dialogue that feel right out of Returns. What we love about Batman Returns is the camp factor and over-the-topness of the costuming and production design. Furthermore, there is one series of scenes in particular that are ostensibly taken right out of Returns. And this isn’t a spoiler. The production design, architecture, and set decorating in the Amusement Pier scene at the end of Birds of Prey are heavily inspired by the defunct zoo setting (Penguin’s lair) in Batman Returns. It is a fantastic combination of German expressionism and French surrealism. I absolutely love the design of the fun house and the execution of the explosive showdown! Birds of Prey strikes a perfect balance of bringing old and new fans alike together for a great comicbook inspired movie!

I highly recommend this movie to all fans of comicbook or superhero movies! Whether you are a DC or Marvel fan, or the rare DCMarvel fan, I feel strongly that you will fall in love with this movie. Although it is still incredibly fresh on my mind, and hasn’t had proper time to steep, presently I feel that it may wind up at No.3 of all-time favorite comicbook/superhero movies for me with No.1 being Batman Returns, No.2 Batman 89, and No.3 Birds of Prey.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“Joker” Film Review

A truly phenomenal motion picture with a tour de force lead performance and relevant social commentary for today’s audience. Warner Bros’ highly anticipated Joker opens everywhere this week. Once again, we get an origin story of Batman’s favorite nemesis. Only this time, it’s told through an extremely heavy film that is less about the violence, that so many seem to be fixated on, and more about the unapologetic character study of someone whom has suffered egregious psychological and physiological trauma at the hands of those whom are supposed to be loving caregivers, friends, or mental health professionals. Prepare yourself to go down the rabbit hole of the mind of a madman in this no holds barred exploration of the far reaching effects of untreated trauma, grief, and schizophrenia. From a critical perspective of analyzing this as a motion picture, I find there is so much to admire! If I was to grade this film on a 1 to 10 scale, it would honestly be 8s, 9s, and 10s across the board. But you know what, if I am to be perfectly candid with my readers, I did not particularly care for the story, lack of likable characters, or even this iteration of The Joker. While I cannot deny the critical achievement of this motion picture (or film), as a movie, I did not care for it. I know some may use the terms film and movie interchangeably, but I often differentiate between them when drawing a distinction between art and entertainment. Some movies are both. For example, since we are in the Batman universe for this one, I will point out that my favorite Batman movie is equal parts film and movie, an “arthouse film masquerading around as a superhero movie,” and that would be Batman Returns. Even after watching Joker, my favorite iteration of the iconic character is still Jack Nicholson’s in Batman (89). That being said, Joaquin Phoenix is acting circles around Jack in this film and blows us away with his spectacular performance as this version of Joker.

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker. (IMDb)

This film is extremely heavy. Usually I don’t make it a point to mention that element of a film; but in the case of this one, it is important that you go in knowing what’s in store for you. Joker is both a character study and an exploration of our present day society as viewed through a 1980s lens. It also sets up Batman, but that is only a small part of this film. Prior to reviewing the performance of Phoenix, I feel it’s important for me to mention that I don’t see him as portraying The Joker as much as I do an authentic, genuine, terrifying madman. It’s no surprise to my readers that I prefer the Burtonverse to the Nolanverse when talking Batman, so my Bat-par is set by 89 and Returns. Nicholson is the standard against which I measure up all other iterations of Joker. And suffice it to say, Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker is not Joker. A brilliant performance as a sociopath, a psychopath, or just plain crazed serial killer with a sordid past brought on by unimaginable trauma, YES; but “Joker,” he is not. Joker is not just a madman, he’s an intelligent, calculating, organized crime boss with a penchant for murder and mayhem that is told through exemplary, if not sinister, showmanship! At the end of the day, Joker is an entertainer. We love to watch him on screen, and even root for him sometimes. There is little reason to root for this Joker. He may start out as an underdog who kills two men in defense; but then starting with the third victim, he is just interested in killing, anarchy, and watching the world burn. He lacks what we love about this iconic villain, and for that reason, I do not feel that this he IS Joker.

While I may not see Phoenix as portraying The Joker (and this has much more to do with the screenplay than his performance), his performance as this madman is off-the-charts great and could possibly be the best performance delivered by Phoenix ever. There is an unapologetic, candidness about this performance that feels incredibly genuine–no pretense about it. Phoenix is 110% committed to this character and stays true to Arthur Fleck the entire time. He is vulnerable and terrifying all at the same time. When analyzing the performance of Phoenix, I am reminded of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard when she states “my eyes, I can say anything with my eyes” and “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” Phoenix could have played a mute Arthur Fleck, and we would still have known precisely what he was thinking and more importantly feeling. He embodies the sage screenwriting words of “dramatize, don’t tell.” Phoenix is consistently committed to the character of Arthur Fleck from beginning to end. And I say “Arthur Fleck” because I don’t believe him to be portraying The Joker. In an exchange on Twitter with my friend Jeremiah that I had (as I was writing), I was reminded of what I learned in geometry, “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” From that we can extrapolate that a theory could be “every Joker is a madman, but not every madman is The Joker.” I’ve seen a lot of great performances over the decades, but I can honestly say that this lead performance by a male actor is among the best I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps Nicholson is still my favorite Joker, but Phoenix’ Joker is certainly the most realistic portrait of the descent from slightly crazy to utter destructive madness to the point that one laughs as the world implodes around them.

Joker is rich with poignant thought-provoking social commentary on our current state of affairs (albeit exaggerated) as the divide between the rich and poor is growing ever so rapidly. Just as American Psycho used the self-centered, consumer-centric, self-indulgent late 1980s to comment on the late 90s//early 2000s, this film also uses the early 1980s lens to comment on the late 2010s/early 2020s. The choice to use the early 1980s as the setting isn’t only because 80s is popular right now, what with Stranger ThingsAmerican Horror Story 1984IT, and more, it’s because it was a highly transitional time in the country. The 1960s was pretty much peaceful, the 1970s was experimental that turned chaotic, and everything came to a head in the early 80s before the economy turned around and the late 80s ushered in the bountiful, progressive 1990s. So the choice to set this film in the inner city of the early 1980s allows it to comment on similar issues that are plaguing us today. Perhaps not to this extreme, but we encounter conflicts that parallel the ones outlined in the film. Instead of treating mental illness, often our society masks it with medication or hides it from view to deal with it later (only later never comes). The rich just keep getting richer, and the poor just keep getting poorer, all while the rich blame the poor for their circumstances and standby and watch the lower rungs on the ladder just fall off; survival of the fittest, one might say. Self-centeredness runs rampant throughout the streets of Gotham as it does in our own cities and towns today. Everyone is so concerned with themselves that they stop to think about building a community that builds up one another to construct a society that is just as much about the quality of life for its citizens as it is the produces and services it can crank out. How do you view our world? As a factory or as a community?

I wish I had known just how heavy this film was going to be before I watched it, as I was not prepared for how dark it was. There are no moments of levity in this film, which I find to be particularly dangerous for audiences. As a screenwriting lecturer, I remind my students that it’s important to use levity strategically even in dark dramas or horror movies. It serves the purpose of not leaving the audience in a depressed state and allows for the writer to deliver an impactful punch when the audience least expects it. Levity relieves negative stress and resets the emotional barometer. I was feeling so oppressed by the tone of this film that I nearly left the cinema because I couldn’t’ take the darkness anymore. And that says a lot, considering that I watch a lot of dark movies and TV shows. Beyond the absence of levity, there aren’t any likable characters. To put it bluntly, everyone is an asshole. The treatment of everyone’s fellow man is despicable. It’s important for a film to establish one or more characters that the audience can identify with and even root for, but I find that everyone is so unlikable that I cannot connect with any of them. Yes, those whom have experienced trauma will likely identify with Arthur, but even he offers nothing redeeming or endearing. Unfortunately, Joker is a film that I may never watch again, despite praising it for its critical achievement as a motion picture.

If you are searching for a film that offers a prolific amount of content for purposes of a character study or cinematic study, then this is an excellent one to put on your list. Personally, I did not care for the story even though by all measurable accounts it’s a great film. But I suppose sometimes there comes along films that we acknowledge for their artistic and critical achievement but do not necessarily need to see again.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry