Thursday, 12 March 2020

Waiting for a film to fail... and ‘Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’

Of course it’s true that the expectations you bring to a film influence your opinion. For example, because I had had a bad day at work I thought a cinema trip the tonic and went to see ‘John Wick: chapter 3 – parabellum’ as that seemed the best brain-dead option on offer; I mean I wasn’t a fan, but Keanu is fun and the first two had been stupid enough. I was just curious, as I tend to be about mainstream stuff that isn’t quite my thing. But then I found myself thoroughly enthralled by the fight choreography of the first third, so I happily endorsed it on that level. I probably wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t had a bad day and wasn’t expecting much but was pleasantly surprised. I am a sucker for a well-choreographed and edited fight scene.

On the other hand, having seen ‘Parasite’ on a lot of Years Best 2019 lists, I was anxious to see it, and I did and thought it great and – as with ‘Moonlight’ – I was glad to have seen it before the Oscar Best Film Ever publicity. My friend saw it afterwards and, of course he thought it good and wasn’t disappointed, but what can match such a reputation when it pumps-up your anticipation to unreasonable heights? You have to adjust and a second watch is usually better. You have to watch out for that.

Or there was ‘Superman vs Batman’ which I went into with the lowest expectations, and they certainly weren’t exceeded in any way, but I found myself shrugging “Meh, I’ve seen worse.” But now, upon reflection, it’s stagnated and probably sunk a little. Maybe I was the same with ‘Suicide Squad’? Oh, a huge allowances must be made for Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex Luther.

On the other hand, I went recently into ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Uncut Gems’ expecting much and was given that and more: they didn’t disappoint. But when expressing my anticipation, my friend said that he doesn’t go into a film with that, preferring a blank slate. But I am an excitable person, so I’m okay with being eager to see a film. Others have to make allowances for Adam Sandler. I’m no fan but he’s exemplary in ‘Uncut Gems’.

And so, I went into ‘Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’ with average expectations. I had been indifferent until I heard some positive comments, and then I saw it was Margot Robbie so I went to see. I expected it to be better than my low anticipations and it was. I went in thinking I would need to make several allowances.  When watching a film, I expect there to be a moment of allowance, where I like much else and excuse a sudden something what perhaps irks me; where I go It’s A Film So Just Accept That And Enjoy. For example, I had to make big allowances for both Peele’s ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ when both films stopped dead for clunky exposition. I have a friend who dislikes ‘Us’ because I believe he thinks it’s badly executed, whereas I don’t mind the slightly unwieldly pile-on of ideas. One that really tested me was Raaphorst’s ‘Frankenstein’s Army’, because I hated 98% of the found-footage camerawork but loved the monster designs. I didn’t feel Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ lapsed into objectionable sentimentality, feeling that was an extension of the tone already set, but a friend did. Tarantino’s latter films create many conflicting opinions, mostly because I distrust blatant rewriting of history in a way that feels a little too close to the mentality of Fake News and Alternative Facts: but there’s a lot of good stuff there too, and it’s true that films are nothing if not fantasies.

Which leads me too: the films that I really take against are those that I feel insult my intelligence or expound agenda’s I find objectionable: the ‘Insidious’ or ‘The Conjuring’ franchises come to mind, and certainly lately Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’. I would have allowed the stupidity of the opening airplane assault in Gutierrez’s ‘Rings’ if the rest hadn’t had me thinking “This is really badly written.” I must allow for the unintentionally hilarious and grating pseudo-poeticism of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’. I allow for the occasional school-play level of acting in McCarthy’s ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ to enjoy its interesting ideas. Tarkovsky’s ‘The Silence’ has that Hysterical Woman syndrome that I dislike. Bloomkamp’s ‘District 9’ sets up so much interesting stuff that allowances must be made when it all just leads to a basic punch-up. Moodyson’s ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ and Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’ perhaps veer too much into misery porn. And of course, Spielberg’s ‘ET’ is drowned in mush. Or there’s the hundreds of films where you must make allowances for the monster designs or special effects.

Often my objections come from a sense that internal logic is maligned, and the film is condescendingly playing the it’s-just-a-movie get-out-of-jail-free card. I felt that at first with Bong Joon Ho’s ‘The Host’: I mean, nah, she wouldn’t have been able to climb out of that hole. I think I would be accepting on another watch: I mean, there’s much greatness there (not least I remember it being the first time that a CGI monster was rendered moving with convincing weight). Or Jenning’s loveable ‘Son of Rambow’: lapse into sentimentality and a bit too much over-egged happy ending that forgoes credibility (of course, Your Mileage May Vary).  

One of the worst examples for me was when I first saw ‘Robocop’, I wasn’t convinced at all that they would get something the weight of the ED-209 onto a floor that high in an office block: did they build it up there? Did they have an industrial elevator? Okay, so assuming that is too picky: why programme a robot killing machine to try to go down by stairs by dipping its foot? Wouldn’t it just be programmed to ignore stairs? I probably still think that’s a daft scene, but I was wrong about the film as a whole, which is ripe and full of satirical goodness. I put it down to the fact that I didn’t understand at the time Paul Verhoeven’s punkish sense of exploitation cinema. Along the same line of thinking, there’s ‘Star Wars’: why would a boy build and programme a camp robot that complains all the time?

With Fargeat’s ‘Revenge’, there was no getting past the fact that she wouldn’t have survived that fall: usually that means I change to “from then on, it’s a fantasy”, and you go with that, but there’s nothing subsequent in the film that lays evidence for this.* So then I just went with the same kind of shrugging enjoyment that I approach, say, the aforementioned ‘John Wick’. But in Kitamura’s ‘No One Lives’, a similarly impossible thing happens and realism be damned: it’s outrageous and darkly funny and plausibility be damned. It’s about tone and the intent implied by the film to that point that determines if you can get away with it. ‘Revenge’ implied a certain seriousness; ‘No One Lives’ didn’t. And you aren’t worrying about credibility with Gordon’s ‘Re-Animator’. And nobody will take issue with, say, Odet and Lehman’s arch but impossibly perfectly formed dialogue of Makendrick’s ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’.

Or ‘City of God’… nope. Or lately: ‘Monos’… ‘Burning’… nope. Or ‘The Haunting’… nope. Or ‘Come and See’‘Eraserhead’ Let the Right One In’… Zyagintsev’s ‘The Return’… Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’ nope. These are films that I am incapable of finding flaw and don’t care to.


Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Cathy Yan, 2020, USA
Screenplay: Christina Hodson

‘Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’ starts very comic-booky with voiceover and quick-cut exposition. Actually, it’s a pace that’s kept up with Harley Quinn barging in periodically as a centrepiece as the scaffolding for these other women is going up and coming together. We’re at the place now where comic book films don’t need a lot a lead-in: other films in the “universe” are prologue. Apparently Margot Robbie rightly pitched it as a girl-gang film. There is much framing like a comic book, a broad sense of fun, silliness, a little meta here and there, several decent lines, Robbie giving it her all – and she’s good, giving a plausible real-life rendition of the ‘Batman: the animated series’ character, created by Paul Dini and Arleen Sorkin’s great voice work and now canon. And I watched for that moment that I felt it failed itself, that moment that called for a huge allowance, where a lapse in internal logic took me out of the immersion.

But, you know, that moment didn’t really come. Although it was visibly trying very hard, it seemed to me no more than many other films obviously showing off and calling for attention. It didn’t feel it was rushing because it was scared of slowing down and showing there was very little holding it aloft. Okay, so there was that moment where I thought “Why is he hanging out on the street with a diamond in his possession, just waiting to be pick-pocketed?” But this was a moment of mild allowance and didn’t sabotage the film.

Rather, I was concentrating on the good things. So it has a mediocre villain in Ewan McGregor, it’s often crude, maybe acts up more clever than it actually is, but… The good: decent timing; not dwelling on any trope too long in a bid for emotional weight; decent fights; a few good one-liners; and I thought the car-chase-on-roller-skates a glorious action set-piece. Actually, the whole final-fight in the fairground felt wonderfully comic-booky and inventive.

Of course, the other thing is that it’s predominantly a woman’s film: directed by Cathy Chan and written by Christina Hodson, with Hodson and Robbie part of the production team. I saw a tweet by someone noting that only a woman would have written the moment in a fight scene where one gives another a hair band so that her long hair doesn’t impede her kicking ass (indeed, she sees to her hair as she’s kicking ass). Although ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ got the most fanfare, ‘Birds of Prey’ seemed to me less problematic and trying, more casual and convincing in its girl gang power agenda. In superheroland, equality usually means women kicking as much ass as the men, and it doesn’t disappoint here. It won’t work for everyone and it won’t convert naysayers, but it’s fun and punky and entertaining enough.

So, in the style of ‘Little White Lies’ magazine: my expectation was that it was going to be average; the reality was that I enjoyed it and found it to be above average; and in retrospect it’s nothing special but it’s a good, enjoyable and fun film with some noteworthy detail.

·       * Whereas that seems a logical continuation of the tone and themes of ‘Drive’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

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