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‘Birds of Prey’ Review

When your film franchise continues to be “that one good one and everything else,” maybe it’s time to call it quits while you’re behind.

“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (the only time I will be typing that entire title) is the eighth installment of the DCEU and a spin-off to 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” Focusing on the titular Harley Quinn (played again by Margot Robbie), the film follows her as she goes on the run from a crime boss (Ewan McGregor) in search of a diamond stolen by a young pick-pocketer (Ella Jay Basco). Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina and Ali Wong also star as Cathy Yan directs.

I have had a lukewarm-at-best reaction to the DC Extended Universe. I will defend “Batman v Superman” and think 90% of “Wonder Woman” is fantastic, but that’s about it. “Man of Steel” is a slog and “Aquaman,” “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” are all ugly messes (“Shazam!” is fine, but the fact its climax lasts two hours is too much to bear). When “Birds of Prey” was announced I was mildly intrigued, mostly because it would be rated R and I am big fan of Black Mask, the villain that McGregor plays. I should have known this would just be another DCEU mess, and one that doesn’t even have big special effects or well-known heroes to distract us.

Margot Robbie’s rise to stardom was solidified in 2016 with her portrayal of Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” and even those who did not much enjoy the film praised her performance. So naturally, just like with Rebel Wilson in the first “Pitch Perfect” or the Minions in “Despicable Me,” the studio saw a little side character that audiences enjoyed and thought it would be smart to give them their own two-hour movie. Robbie is so annoying and dumb in this film that it hurts. Her character is a former psychiatrist (meaning she went to school and has an MD) but she just speaks and makes decisions like trailer trash. I know that the character of Harley Quinn is that she became deranged and is unpredictable because the Joker brainwashed her, but you don’t lose IQ points when you give into your inhibitions (the script even has her ramble off a sentence full of big words at one point to demonstrate that she is in-fact still smart in an attempt to have its cake and eat it, too). Her voice is also very grating at points, mixing Robbie’s Bronx-ish accent with a high-pitched cartoon twist, so the fact she narrates the entire film gets old quick.

The rest of the cast is, fine, although I don’t think any of them have any sort of characteristics outside the one trait the film needs from them. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Deadpan Assassin, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is Singing Fighter, Rosie Perez is a Cliché Cop; we get it. Ewan McGregor starts out fine as Black Mask, injecting some flamboyant life into his scenes, but then something switches and he becomes almost a completely different character from a separate film. He, too, really only has one characteristic (he’s the bad guy so he’s evil!) and has no real motivation. People knock the MCU for having cookie-cutter villains, but they also gave us Killmonger and Thanos, two bad guys who have plans the audience can relate to and see why they are doing what they do. Here, Black Mask (who wears his mask in just one scene, because god-forbid we cover the McGregor face for the trailers) wants a diamond to get rich and wants to kill Harley because… reasons.

The actions scenes are passable, there is one set piece in a police station where Harley rampages with a non-lethal grenade launcher that had me chuckle a few times. But the ending is just quick edits of punching masked disposable bad guys, and the stakes feel so low you just want to go home.

Also, and this is a personal complaint but I had the same issue with Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy: Gotham City has no distinctive (or consistent) feel. This film was shot around Los Angeles, while “Suicide Squad” was filmed in Canada and “Batman v. Superman” in Detroit (and, for what it’s worth, “Joker” in New York City). The color palette is bright and sunny, but the whole city feels like it’s just several blocks; the entire film essentially takes place in three locations.

I’ll quickly touch on the script, and if you haven’t guessed, I was not a fan. On top of thin characters and contradictory logic, the screenplay is just lazy. The film is rated-R but that is barely for the violence; it’s more because this is one of those movies that acts like a 13 year old who just discovered the f-word and awkwardly shoves it into every sentence it can (a grown man and professional business owner shouting “what the f*ckety-f*ck?!” is amusing maybe once, but then just looks foolish). Also, every single male character in the film is either a jerk, a rapist or an idiot, and pretty much every woman is a saint (despite Harley self-proclaiming herself as “a pretty terrible person”). This isn’t even me being a triggered straight white male, as I’m sure Twitter will label anyone who doesn’t like this film. We criticize Michael Bay for having exclusively one-dimensional female characters in his films, or Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan for having them only serve the plot, so I’m calling out the sheer laziness and one-sided nature of this film.

“Birds of Prey” is not a female-empowerment film like “Wonder Woman” or even simply a fun female-led one like “Captain Marvel.” It is an ugly-looking, thinly-written and overly-acted mess that offers only the occasional chuckle or moment of intrigue. Margot Robbie tries, and this was surely a passion project for her, but it is just nowhere near good enough. I continue to think the DCEU peaked in 2017 with “Wonder Woman” (let’s hope that sequel lives up to the hype) and Warner Bros. needs to go back to the drawing board. Say what you want about Zack Snyder’s Superman quasi-trilogy, at least those films had ambition and weight, and tried to be something different in the superhero genre. Here, we are left with a wannabe “Deadpool” dressed in “Suicide Squad” clothing, and it fails to clear even the basement-level bar set by its predecessors.

Critics Rating: 3/10

Some Charm, Little Brain in ‘Focus’

2015_Focus_film_posterThere used to be a time when Will Smith was the most bankable movie star in Hollywood. Nicolas Cage also used to compete for Oscars instead of Razzies, so as Bob Dylan once wrote: the times they are a-changing.

Smith stars in “Focus”, a movie all about small-time criminals pulling cons—until it’s not. Margot Robbie, best known from “Wolf of Wall Street”, co-stars as a young and enthusiastic rookie who Smith takes under his wing and teaches the tools of the trade. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa write and direct here.

“Focus” really is a tale of two movies. The first half features some clever banter, and is all about pulling cons in New Orleans, all leading up to a somewhat well executed, tension-filled climax at the Super Bowl. (Quick side note: the game is never called the Super Bowl because the NFL is lame; it’s just “the game”. Also, a team from Miami is playing, which even for a fictional football universe seems pretty hard to buy.) Once Will Smith and Margot Robbie leave New Orleans and go their separate ways, all the fun seems to go with them.

The second half of film takes place three years later in Buenos Aires (because, sure?), and it just doesn’t have the same shine as the first 50 minutes. There are no real cons, but instead it is replaced with Will Smith trying his best to charm the pants off of Robbie (figuratively and literally).

Smith is still as charismatic and likable as ever, but in “Focus” that can only carry the film so far. We don’t learn much about his character other than people generally don’t like him, he has daddy issues, and for one scene he apparently has a gambling addiction.

Smith does have some chemistry with Robbie, but at other times their interactions feel forced and unnatural. Robbie shows that she is an actress that we’ll be seeing more of, and I’m fine with that, but there really isn’t much development to her character. When we meet her she is just a small-timer stealing watches, and by the end of the film it isn’t really clear if she is truly anything different (but hey, the movie made sure that we get that background story that she “always had to look out for herself”, so it makes up for it, right?).

There are some fun twists, then there are some completely unbelievable ones, and there are some small plot holes, then there are ones big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through. The best thing I can compare it to is “Now You See Me” (if you can remember that thing): if when the dust settles you can buy all the twists, then you’ll enjoy the final payoff. If you need some sense and plausibility with your films, then maybe “Focus” isn’t for you.

Two likable leads and some colorful locations do not make a great movie, but they certainly help to elevate an otherwise average one. “Focus” isn’t Smith’s most tedious movie, and it’s nowhere near the worst film of 2015 (“50 Shades” will likely hold that title for a while), but it just isn’t as much fun as it should be.

Critics Rating: 5/10