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Non-Review Review: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is an immensely charming and high-energy romp, that is as unfocused as its central character and suffers more than a little bit from a non-linear narrative style that it never really justifies or employs effectively.

There is a lot to love in Birds of Prey, but perhaps the most charming aspect of it is the intimacy. Birds of Prey is bereft of the sort of city-, planet- or galactic-sized stakes that have come to define so much of modern superhero cinema, from Thor: The Dark World to Man of Steel to Avengers: Endgame. The bulk of Birds of Prey consists of a wrestling match over a diamond that happens to contain bank account details that point to an even larger payday. Its climax is on the scale of an eighties or nineties action movie, which means it involves anonymous henchmen rather than a literal army.

A cutting retort?

This consciously low-stakes approach allows Birds of Prey to simply enjoy itself, to revel in the charm of the cast and the relatively straightforward journeys of the central characters. Warner Brothers have been pushing their DC properties away from the MCU-emulating shared universe model that led to the spectacular disaster of Justice League, instead focusing on affording creators the freedom to do what they want to do. Joker rejected the modern superhero template to offer a throwback to films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. In contrast, Birds of Prey seems to hark back to The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Birds of Prey is perhaps a little too messy and unfocused in terms of narrative, which affects the movie’s pacing and rhythm. However, it also trusts its cast and its energy to carry it a long way, working best when it feels confident enough to play as a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.

Girl gang.

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Non-Review Review: Bombshell

Bombshell is a strange and imbalanced piece of awards fare.

On the surface, Bombshell looks like a standard awards season movie. It is a story about sexual harassment, focusing on three women telling three different stories exploring three very distinct facets of that sort of abuse. The movie follows each independently, as their narratives wind and interconnect, offering a holistic perspective on a problem that remains both far too common and very highly charged. Bombshell should be a slam dunk of a story, particularly in the era of #metoo.

Shell shocked.

Unfortunately, Bombshell chooses to construct this triumphant story of virtue defeating villainy within Fox News against the backdrop of the 2016 election. It spoils very little to reveal that the big climactic moments of Bombshell offer a stunning juxtaposition; the deposing of harasser Roger Ailes is set against Donald Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention. There should be something bittersweet in this, a compelling and complex narrative of culpability and complicity. Instead, Bombshell attempts to sell this as big heroic narrative beat.

Bombshell is wrestling with something thorny and nuanced, but instead seeks to simplify it down to a simple story with clear cut heroes and cardboard antagonists. Bombshell is a movie that asks the audience to cheer for the women of Fox News as the characters head into an election cycle that would be defined by Donald Trump’s admission of sexual assault, his casual misogyny and widely-reported rape allegations. This is – at best – a complicated note on which to conclude a film. Bombshell tries to package it as a feel-good celebration of sisterhood.

Kelly’s a Hero.

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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

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Non-Review Review: Focus

Focus is a fun old-fashioned heist movie that suffers from the lack of a central plot.

In some respects, Focus plays as a con itself. While movies about con artists are inevitably built around charismatic rogues and antiheroes, the stories practically structure themselves. Cons are visually interesting and dynamic, they are fun and exciting. Watching characters trying to out-wit one another in rapidly-escalating situations creates instant dramatic tension, and it is easy to see why the genre has remained popular. The beats are familiar – the “big one”, the “revenge con”, the “try to get alive game.”

Off the clock...

Off the clock…

Focus keeps teasing the audience with possible plot hooks that might sustain a two-hour film, diverting the audience’s focus and keeping them off-balance. “So what about the big con?” Margot Robbie’s Jess teases Will Smith’s Nicky. “You mean the one where we all make so much money we all retire?” Nicky teases back, dismissively. What makes Focus so interesting – and what also arguably prevents it from working as well as it might – is that it consciously plays against these recognisable elements. There is no big con, there is no story.

This is the long con that Focus plays – and plays very well. For all that it teases the plot-driven trappings of a caper movie, Focus is a good old-fashioned star-driven drama, a movie built around Will Smith’s movie icon charisma. It is one hell of a gamble, and one that doesn’t play off as well as it might, Focus‘ unwavering commitment provides a charm and energy that carries movie through. Offering advice to Jess, Nicky insists, “You never drop the con. Never break. Die with the lie.” It seems that Focus lives by its own words.

A star vehicle...

A star vehicle…

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