Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Into The Badlands

“Movie wonk me” insists I should not like Into The Badlands, AMC’s post-apocalyptic Chop-Suey Western.

The writing is shoddy. It introduces plot devices, then forgets about them a few episodes later. Characters’ power levels and willingness to kill fluctuate depending on what the script needs them to be. Enemies of some prominence in the world pop in only to get whacked right away, through what comes across as lack of show planning. It is the kind of writing where a character gets handcuffed, both arms behind his back, and stands there resigned... even though he only has one hand.

But then, it has got the best flying kung fu action this side of Yuen Woo-Ping ’s work in The Matrix. Between its flowing fight sequences and the buckets of blood it deploys, it feels like Yimou Zhang directing a Brian Yuzna production. Its design is dystopian wuxia by way of Karl Lagerfeld. It’s so manga; they even do the eye-visible-through-character ‘s-hair thing on episode 2.

Plus, it’s as unselfconscious as something this manicured can be. (The way everyone dresses, you figured there are three tailors for every poppy farmer.) A character can be lost, wandering through the rubble of our world, and find worn but impeccably fitting clothes that fit his preferred color scheme. It’s the sort of world where Nick Frost can use an octopus as nunchucks – with a straight face.

(Remember The World’s End, where Nick Frost being an action hero was a key joke?)

Sure, there is a plot. Our world collapsed for some initially unspecified reason. The Badlands, wherever that is, are ruled by Barons. In (once again) Mad Max-style, the Barons grudgingly collaborate because they each have things the other want. Marton Csokas’ Quinn, playing Discount Eastern European Kevin Spacey, runs the opium trade. Emily Beecham’s merciless The Widow controls the oil fields. Baron Chao’s family specializes in the slave trade (although the other barons still seem to have it as a hobby). The rest of the Barons do... something. It doesn’t matter. It’s background for why our hero, Sunny, a supernaturally efficient clipper (their word for indentured servants-slash-professional killers) under Quinn’s thumb, is having second thoughts and will (inevitably) end up wandering the Earth, Kwai Chang Cain-style. It’s all there to give us an excuse for some gorgeous combat.

Really. The fights are arresting, a thing of beauty. I blame the success of The Bourne Identity for why we ended up with decades of lazy close-up fight photography, where it’s hard to tell what is going on other than “punches being thrown”. Into The Badlands is a return to the craft of fight choreography, where you can not only tell where everyone is but what the space around them is like – which leads to combat that uses the environment in creative ways. This helps respect one of kung fu’s essential unspoken rules – the only weapon deadlier than your heirloom sword is an improvised one – and it means whenever it’s clear that people are picking a fight in an interesting environment, you get excited.

Yes, I’m arguing that a show is worth watching for the combat. The fact that the choreographers manage to sustain our interest and keep the fights fresh during 32 episodes is impressive.

It takes it a bit to find its footing. The first season gives off whiffs of “Game of Thrones, but on a budget.” Luckily they find their voice and choose to embrace their “bloody Journey to the West by way of Roger Corman” DNA instead. At about the same time, it becomes an equal opportunity horniness provider, with thirst-traps for every gender, ethnicity, and age bracket legally allowed. It realizes that the plot might be better served by having heel characters should stick around, so they slow down the antagonist revolving door.

Somewhere along the way, despite the janky writing and boatloads of clichés, you start liking these people. Not all of them, mind you. Some whiny turds remain whiny turds throughout. But characters have arcs (movie-wonk for “grow as people”) and, by and large, behave as you would expect someone in their position to – even when it’s not the nicest thing to do, and you know they will regret it later.

It didn’t last long, with AMC canceling it after three seasons. It’s just as well that it ended – the show had put on too much mythology too fast and the writing was coming apart at the seams. The cancellation seems to have brought some focus to the narration, and Badlands managed to wrap its story well, leaving behind a world that was over-designed but entertaining to spend time in.

So “movie wonk me” can stuff it. It’s not cognitive dissonance if you have different personas. The film purist can nitpick all he wants, but the persona who likes to have fun with fun things enjoyed Into The Badlands.

#action #danielwu #emilybeecham #allyioannides #orlabrady #stephenlang #nickfrost #martoncsokas

Surprise! Well-known pedophile who admitted to having blackmail material on his powerful associates, got arrested under a mountain of evidence, then was conveniently taken off suicide watch and left alone in his cell to “commit suicide” coincidentally as the cameras failed, was festering excrement of an excuse for a human being.

I’m not sure what Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich ’s reason to exist is, other than to re-affirm that. It’s not investigative journalism. If it performed an in-depth examination of the people floating around Epstein’s ring, maybe, but Netflix isn’t in a hurry to get sued, so only the most thoroughly documented ones like Prince Andrew come up. And even then, it takes them three hours to point some fucking fingers at someone who isn’t already dead.

Cowardly fucks.

It’s well-structured, I’ll give it that. The initial narration’s repetitive structure helps drive home the point that Epstein’s behavior was consistent, something routine he executed over and over and over. But one comes away from this having learned nothing. The case is well-known by now, and the victims have been able to speak. Wikipedia has better documentation than this (including less sensationalistic figures on how likely the type of fracture he suffered was).

There’s no doubt many people were worried about what might come up as evidence if Epstein went to trial, even if he had kept his mouth shut. The material recovered in the New York building was much better organized than just “stacks of porn” (down to labeling pairings). Focus on that, and how many others were likely involved, instead of skewing things to bump the suicide conspiracy from “extremely likely” to “inevitable”.

But nope.

I didn’t need to watch this. You don’t need to watch this. It won’t change anything.

#tvseries #documentary

Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager

The Night Manager feels like what a modern James Bond story would be like if they had the guts to break away from their old formula. Funny, because the book it's based on came out twenty years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the Bond movies have focused on fancy suits, cocktail parties, and gadgets (all things that The Night Manager mostly eschews). Espionage is drawn out and can be more about the slow maneuvering to get in place than any immediate, decisive action. You only have two hours in a movie, which don't leave much time for all that tense manipulation and second-guessing.

It's the curse of the movie adaptation. Good things take time, and there is only so much you can do in a couple of hours. A series has more time to develop stories in, but successful actors didn't use to give them the time of day.

It used to be that TV was where careers went to die. A decade and a half after The Sopranos and 24, TV and streaming are not only respectable – they are places where actors and directors go for big paydays, where you get to experiment with formats that may launch franchises.

And, more importantly, where you get to take your time. TV series, even limited ones, have more room to breathe.

A creative upside of TV's resurgence (and its streaming forms) is that production teams no longer feel compelled to compress a story into two hours. For years we had the sigma that serious actors only did movies meant for theatrical release – TV was where careers went to die.

Enter The Night Manager, a 2016 adaptation from a 1993 John le Carré novel, where a hotelier volunteers for an undercover operation to get evidence on an arms dealer.

It's the sort of story that meant for a serial, with its many characters, layered motivations, and overlapping intrigues, constantly ticking machinery that may stop at just the worst place.

With its six-hour run time, you get to gorge yourself on the embarrassment of riches that are the delightful performances that build up the tangled character web.

Tom Hiddleston, taking a break from his Marvel commitments to play Jonathan Pine, the eponymous manager, bringing a mixture of self-control, insecurity, and drive that you wish other spy series could muster.

Who gets recruited by...

Olivia Colman as the Angela Burr, disappearing into her character as always, equal parts frustration and persistence as a bulldog of a British official who refuses to stop chasing after Richard Roper, even in spite of her superiors' blatant obstruction.

Which she does, doggedly, because he considers him the worst person alive, a quality that would be hard to convey if it wasn't because of...

Hugh Laurie as Roper, who might be the embodiment of evil, sporting the delightful, careless accent of an utter cunt who doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he gets away with things.

(Roper's characterization, by the way, is one of the best portrayals of a psychopath that I've seen. He doesn't twirl his mustache, he doesn't rant about life being worthless or how insignificant the little people are. It just never enters the equation. He is the pure opportunistic, transactional evil that our times have shown can so easily get ahead.)

Roper surrounds himself with a shield of accomplices, helpers, and employees, such as...

Major Lance Corkoran, known to everyone as Corky, his spymaster-slash-chief-of-staff-slash-frontman, whom Tom Hollander portrays with a balanced mixture of restraint and recklessness. Hollander can convey both his distrust and resentment at Pine's sudden appearance with little else but a side glance and how he sets his mouth, and does his thankless little part and job with gusto.

And somewhere in the middle of this is Jed, played by...

Elizabeth Debicki, the multiple episodes letting her showcase a range she hasn't put on display before on a single movie. She has shown charisma before, and Steve McQueen's thrilling Widows let her display a talent for flexible understatement, but Manager lets her play someone dedicated to putting on a happy face, and Debicki relishes it. There's a moment, later in the series, where her character Jed has to add another layer of pretense to the existing one, and for a couple of seconds it is clear to viewers how fake Jed is being. She shines then.

(Debicki has the potential to become a 10-years-in-the-making overnight sensation, with the combination of looks and the acting chops she shows here, but she's running out of time for taking parts other than “sculptural blonde.” She should do more limited series.)

All together, along with the secondary scum and rats scurrying around Roper, make for an enjoyable, tense six episodes. It's a character-driven story. Having said that, even the tradecraft is entertaining. There's a fascinating little scene of covert communication in public, and sadly it takes the series a few hours to do that again. If I had to complain about something, it would be how much the current era lets the characters default to secure messenger instead of more creative methods.

The Night Manager is still great at creating tension, and that's what everyone is here for – this “great acting” stuff is something us movie wonks get off on. It is a thriller, and you are here to be thrilled as you watch the players creep into position, dance around each other, figure out how the corrupt officials are going to get turned around, and watch our heroes attempts to outfox a smug, smart fuck who doesn't feel the need to pussyfoot around and has no qualms about disposing of anyone who becomes an issue. There is no way all of this could have worked on a movie – tension comes, literally, from stretching things out. The series has the patience required to take its time with every aspect of the story, from how long it takes it to introduce its monster, to how long it takes our hero to sneak into their confidence, to its eventual explosive resolution. The Night Manager stretches out its story as taut as it has to, and in doing so, delivers the stylish thrills a movie couldn't.

#thenightmanager #johnlecarre #oliviacolman #elizabethdebicki #hughlaurie #tomhiddleston #thriller #tvseries

Book cover for Stories of your Life and Others

A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life.

— Ted Chiang

You have got to squint to see Ted Chiang.

You could give me a random markdown file with a story, and I could tell if the writer was Peter Watts or Robert Heinlein or Vernor Vinge. As authors, they have distinct voices, styles, concerns that come through whether they are writing about the near-future or post-singularity, fantasy, or body horror. Most would take a few paragraphs – Iain M. Banks might take a chapter.

Not Chiang. The most impressive thing about Ted Chiang’s intricate collection of beautiful (and mostly) science fiction tales, Stories of Your Life and Others, is how muted Chiang himself is.

You can see the connecting tissue, mostly in the concerns, but Chiang is a writer who lets the characters and situations speak – you don’t hear him nearly as much.

It’s an eclectic collection of themes. Among them:

  • The Tower of Babylon, a scientific recounting of what it would be to attempt to pierce the heavens, see Yahweh;
  • 72 Letters, mixing magic with thermodynamics, using the Kabbalah as lexical genetics;
  • Hell is the absence of God, a smirking, chuckling story of speculative fiction (and the only one not science-bent) about what it would be like if Christian myth was literally, visibly real;
  • And of course Story of your Life, whose central conceit the movie Arrival has already spoiled, but which manages to convey its fascination with language and the shaping of reality.

They are filigreed little things, littered with minutia, much more solid than they first appear. Every story in this collection has a distinct voice – Chiang doesn’t have a single one. Nowhere is this more evident than on a “documentary transcript” about how we manipulate each other with beauty. Multiple talking heads bob in and out of the story, each one with their manner and concerns.

They all share a few traits, though. Mostly, the focus on getting back to science fiction roots, when the stories weren’t supposed to be about the gadget but about how the gadget changes us. It’s not just all business and sociology, though – Chiang manages to sneak in jokes about such varied things like histocompatibility genetics – but they are all about the social implications, how things changed because.

Plus, there is a brief afterword, with notes about where the stories came from. People always ask writers where do they get their ideas, but nobody wonders ever asks how for how long they had to work at getting them right. If the details on the stories themselves did not leave it clear, the afterword would cement the impression that Chiang takes a while to let things percolate and edit them so that they are just right. Or, more importantly, so that he is satisfied with them.

With this meticulous attention to detail, it is no surprise he has published only a handful of tales in the last 30 years. It was surprising, however, learning that even after Arrival he is still working as a technical writer. I shouldn't have, however, considering the respect for the craft his stories shows. While the rest of us expect the ideal gig and complain about how shitty our managers are, he just wants to produce something he is happy with, however long it takes. Even if it means holding up a day job.

#books #scifi #tedchiang #storyofyourlife #arrival

The Addams Family cast, 1991

I know what you think of me.

The snob.

The science fiction junkie.

The pedant who sits on film festival juries.

The guy who can’t write an article without somehow connecting it with social issues, his background, or both.

Got me figured out, huh?

Well, let me tell you, I adore The Addams Family.

It was delightfully, gloriously silly, unafraid to revel on its own absurdity, what when you could be both elegant and doltish. With relish. Without being stupid.

If that wasn’t enough, it is about family, and belonging, and fucking over everyone who doesn’t care about who you are. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, of all people, who was a good two decades ahead of our time in giving us Wag The Dog the perfect prescient representation of where we’ve been stuck for about two decades now, and...

No, wait. That was Barry Levinson. Sonnenfeld made... um... Men in Black, I guess. And Wild, Wild West.

Alright.

Nevermind.

It was funny. It was harebrained. It knew what it was doing and it did it with relish.

Commitment should be cherished.

#barrysonnenfeld #comedy #theaddamsfamily #rauljulia #angelicahuston #christopherlloyd #danhedaya #christinaricci #barrylevinson

A couple in a field of flowers, against a blue sky, the may pole ahead of them

There's a moment in Ari Aster's first movie, Hereditary, where I found myself standing up, arms lifted as if to signal someone to stop, frozen. A few seconds earlier I'd been on the couch, enjoying what was evidently a slow build up to something, unsure about where this was leading. Then something happened. The tension had escalated, like something pushing metal doors forward, first just slightly bulging them, then bending, then stretching. The scene picked up speed, and suddenly, the force behind the doors grew, contorting them forward, and they exploded and released whatever was behind them. It happened in an instant. I, as a viewer, knew. The characters did not, not right away. I, however, did not notice I had shot up, instinctively, arms slightly raised and hands half-open, maybe to warn them, nor that it took me a few seconds before I realized I was still standing up, staring at the relative calm, waiting for the people in the screen to figure out what had happened.

Ari Aster's movies get classified as horror, because there isn't a better category. They have terrifying moments – Hereditary's last stretch is nerve-wracking – but his aim during the movie is not to shock you. Instead, Aster wants to unsettle you.

Midsommar is Ari Aster does The Wicker Man, and that should be enough of a warning.

No, not whatever was going on with Nicholas Cage's unintentionally hilarious remake, but Robin Hardy's 1973 classic of old rituals and sexual hang-ups.

Aster is clear about the template his story will follow. Instead of Scotland, he sets his story of foreigners visiting a pagan commune in Sweden during the summer solstice. This means we get scenes of casual horror and violence, wreathed in flowers and dressed in white, gorgeously lit against the midnight sun.

The four students we meet at the start – two from anthropology, one from psychology, and a fool of a friend – all accept the invitation having no idea what to expect. We do. They sleep in a communal house, its walls covered in murals depicting the cult's traditions. There are embroidered tapestries hanging around with pictorial instructions for love spells. Everything is spelled out around them. Their willful blindness is as much to blame for what happens to them as the villagers.

Midsommar's setting might be different from Hereditary, its scope wider, but they have a shared DNA. Their pacing, slow; their development, gradual; their sound design, pulsating and sudden. It cements Aster's status as the King of Family Freakouts and Legacies of Lunacy.

Midsommar, though, is not as tight as Hereditary, and the slower pace gives you more time to process the events. This has an unexpected effect: what happens doesn't feel as horrifying. Still, the fact that as viewers we start to become inured to the events might be the entire point. If the behavior can start to feel normal – expected, even – across two hours, what would happen if you grew up in that community?

By the same account, though, I don't imagine Midsommar will have the same staying power as Hereditary. I still flinch when I remember the latter's turning point, the moment that caused me to shoot up. I expect I'll remember Midsommar and grimace, but that my jaw will remain unclenched.

Still, if you are looking for something different, something that scratches a mental scab you have left alone for a while, Midsommar will gladly do it for you, and won't stop until you taste iron.

#midsommar #hereditary #horror #ariaster #thewickerman #paganism

Furie movie poster

For a brief moment, the Vietnamese action-drama Furie promises to create something different: a criminal underbelly where vovinam-fighting women control crime syndicates while followed by faceless, ineffectual henchmen who only act as cannon fodder.

It mostly, sort of, delivers on that promise, but only in the most half-assed of fashions, while quickly defaulting to more standard setups.

Ngô Thanh Vân stars as Hai Phuong, who we meet in some village in the middle of nowhere, beating a guy with a brick for a $100 debt. The introduction establishes that she's tough, but not invincible (there's an assignment that she has to escape), nor heartless (she doesn't hit her quota for the day because she gives some people a chance). We also learn she doesn't do this out of greed, but to support her 10-year-old daughter Mai, barely, buying $0.10 worth of food at a time in the market to cook on their crumbling river-side shack. She tries to avoid unnecessary fights, hiding when a drunk comes by to scream at her instead of chopping him up for bait. She is mostly trying to keep to herself, ensuring her kid stays in school, focuses on her studies, and has more options than Hai Phuong ever did.

Until a day when, after she gets distracted at a local market, some people kidnap Mai and flee to Saigon.

This happens at exactly the 30-minute mark. It's the first sign that we have been #sydfielded once again. The movie will then follow her around Saigon, reaching out to old contacts (who can't help), tracking down the people who took her daughter. She learns that she is in a race against time, and has only hours before her kidnappers butcher Mai her organs (because of course she stumbles upon a massive, well-organized organ trafficking ring around 60 minutes in).

Using a known structure of well-established beats is not a problem in and of itself. The Invitation made it work. What matters, though, is what you do between the beats. And Furie doesn't do nearly enough.

While it adds some autochthonous flavor during its first 30 minutes, Furie quickly forgets about it. For the rest of its run, it is content with biding its time until the next beat, cramming whatever filler it can find on the gaps. Some of this works, like her attempt to reconnect with an old colleague at a club. However, most fall on the category of “add disposable family melodrama, so people are free to go pee before the climax.” It's not filler; it's background information!

It is the laziest portrayal of organ trafficking, by the way. The one where the kidnappers cram children into a train for transfer into some dismantling facility. Let's disregard the fact that you can't keep organs around on the freezer for later use like ground beef, nor sell them to the first rando who shows up as if we were all compatible. The movie already established in its first 30 minutes that kidnappers can move kids between cities just fine by using the public bus system. Why have an elaborate network to ship them around by train in bulk, which requires you to avoid authorities at every stop? Why not just use the public bus system, as they did earlier, or rent their own minibus and move them a few at a time?

Because you can't have a climatic showdown inside a minibus, dummy.

Fridge logic would be forgivable if the movie had stuck to its guns and remained centered on killer women, from Hai Phuong, to her boss in the village, to the various ladies managing otherwise shady enterprises in Saigon. But the movie introduces a handsome male cop, who initially seems just going to be an ineffectual foil. Instead, he keeps swooping in at the last minute, looking cool, acting as if he's saving the day. After Hai Phuong has already both done all the research and knocked out 99% of the opposition. And the movie plays this with a straight face.

Or it would be something you handwave if the action is spectacular. But while it has its moments, the camera is often too close to the players, and there are only two scenes where the choreography surprises you.

Furie was what it took for me to appreciate The Raid II's “more is more” excesses. Gareth Evans benefitted from directing a sequel to an already successful film, but both Raid movies brought a clear intent to surprise the viewer that Furie could have used. Instead, it's content with sticking to tired structures and being a lower-budget distaff Ajeossi, without any of Bin Won's charm or style.

#veronicango #levankiet #vietnam #furie #action

Poster for The Night Comes for Us

I'd love to see Timo Tjahjanto take a stab at directing a William Gibson adaptation. He'd need to learn some self-control, because it doesn't seem like he can go three minutes without something that shouldn't be near a body chopping into one, but he would be a fit for the sudden eruption of bloody violence that can come up in Gibson's earlier worlds.

The Night Comes for Us, his latest movie, feels like someone put The Passion of the Christ and The Man from Nowhere into a blender, leaned on the button until their bones mostly stopped crunching, then served it as a script smoothie.

It's a basic setup: Ito, a deadly triad enforcer who is supposed to leave nobody alive, takes pity on a girl after his team massacres the girl's entire village. He's not just any enforcer, but one of the feared Six Seas. The triad takes offense at his disobeying them, and sends the other five dreaded killers to follow him into Jakarta and start a cavalcade of carnage.

Indonesian action movies first broke into the West with Gareth Evans' sensational The Raid: Redemption. Not only The Raid was a hit on its own right, but Pete Travis' surprisingly enjoyable Dredd would later liberally borrow from it. The Raid also put Iko Uwais on the map, as well as (to a smaller degree) his co-star Joe Taslim. Both would end up having small parts as “that guy” on a few Hollywood action movies, before reuniting on The Night Comes for Us.

Their signature was the use of Pencak Silat, a hyperkinetic martial art which makes practitioners look as if Bruce Lee had gone on a meth binge and decided to modify Jeet Kune Do to cause as much damage as possible. Night brings it down to the shantytown dirt floor. Assassins efficiently use their signature tools – two wire-wielding women, combined with the urban grime and pervasive crime, were what triggered memories of Jonny watching Molly Mirrors fight on the Killing Floor – but thugs will charge in with cleavers and machetes and anything they have on hand. The defenders don't have the luxury of elegantly knocking one out before moving on to the next – it is an unrelenting wave of bodies coming at them, and they will use anything around them to stab and gouge as they try to survive.

The fights take place in cramped quarters – ramshackle apartments, crowded hallways, stairwells, inside a police truck. They are so full of combatants that even a warehouse seems confining and, filmed often without a single cut, feel improvised and brutal. I haven't seen a movie this obsessed with the specifics of how an individual can get mangled since Hacksaw Ridge (which, I swear, I'll get to around to writing about at some point).

There is no doubt that Tjahjanto is adept at mixing violence and style. His writing leaves a lot to be desired, with his plots brimming with clichés and action movie logic, such as a stylish assassin which shows to help because, I guess, we all wanted to see Julie Estelle again. He is also not consistently good – Headshot was a dull lump of a movie, at most a practice run for Night. When he gets things right, though, his grisly tableaus can make you forget you are watching a movie and generate a reaction closer to reflexive pain avoidance. He is brilliant at visceral butchery, but should look to collaborate with a better writer – I can only imagine what he'd do paired with an Alex Garland. For now, I'll settle for him bringing Stelle's Operator back for seconds.

#timotjahjanto #juliestelle #ikouwais #joetaslim #williamgibson #action #indonesia

Gerard Butler as a cop, leaning against a car

You lied to me, AVClub. You hinted that Den of Thieves might be decent, even though it starred Gerard Butler.

It's not.

It is, at best, a meathead version of Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat.

It seemed like it was going to be a hammy character-slash-actor-focused effort at the start – still a B-movie, but maybe the Re-Animator of cops and robbers movies. It then got into a flexing contest with itself, flew into a 'roid rage fit, floored the plot muscle car, and sped off leaving skid marks before it crashed into a cliche-filled mall of chest-pounding macho-posturing militarized-police aggrandizement. Its tone-deafness and brain-dead huffing-and-puffing might even end up making it a cult item for a particular group in this era, with its hero being a tough-guy cop who chokes information out of a black guy, in the very same sequence as a gay panic scene.

I'm not kidding.

It doesn't even have the decency of being a good bad movie. It's content with graduating from the Wild Things school of clever-characters-and-plot-twists, where the writer wants to surprise viewers but is incapable of placing a single clue that would surprise a stoned five-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt.

What does he do, then?

He keeps everyone in the dark throughout the story, only to explain what went down with flashbacks at the end. Surprise, motherfucker!

There go two hours of my life. On the bright side, I can take it as a warning to stay away from writer/director Christian Gudegast in the future.

#christiangudegast #gerardbutler #pabloschreiber

Birds of Prey poster

How in the name of Martha Wayne's pearls did this alcohol-drenched magenta-tinted Takashi Miike-reminiscent Johnnie To-on-speed glitter-bomb romp get greenlit, nevermind released?

It's even more surprising when you emerge from all its craziness and remember that Birds of Prey spawned out of David Ayer's Suicide Squad abortion.

Some background here: DC Comics saw what Marvel had, and coveted it. Since they had been doing dour affairs where Superman, a reminder of all that's good in humanity, snaps a guy's neck, they decided to double-down on the grime and meanness. Out comes Suicide Squad, a Dirty Half-Dozen of B-list comic book villains, written and directed by David Ayer, the Marylin Manson of macho movies.

One of said B-list villains was Harley Quinn, the crazy girlfriend of Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker. It became a breakthrough role for Margot Robbie, who had been a firecracker on The Wolf of Wall Street, and took the opportunity to turn the hyper up to 11 on her portrayal of Harley as a psychotic cheerleader. The movie sucked, she was a hit. Some Warner Bros. executive decided to make lemonade and signed Robbie on for a first-look deal. She chose a Suicide Squad spin-off as her first choice.

Cue facepalm. Why would she willingly go back to that tepid slime-covered rat-drowning well, now that she gets to work on whatever she wants?

Because she thought it would be fun if she got to do it her way, it looks like.

So we get Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a movie about what happens after Harley Quinn breaks up with the Joker.

(Who, by the way, was not only the worst choice in a movie full of terrible decisions, but also the single worst portrayal of any comic book character. Ever. And that's counting Roger Corman's Fantastic Four movie, and whatever was going on in Joel Schumacher's Batman adaptations.)

Back on track. Harley breaks up with the Joker. Nobody knows. It behooves her to keep it that way, because Harley's long history of fucking with people means there are a lot of people who want to fuck right back with her, and fear of the Joker keeps them at bay. Tired of him always coming up in conversation, she makes a very public, fireworks-laden break-up statement.

Bunch of other stuff is going on in Gotham at the time, involving a psychotic mobster, a pick-pocket, a killer shooting criminals in the throat with a crossbow, and the people who get dragged into the whole mess.

Action!

Now, don't get me wrong. This is not the Unforgiven of comic book movies. It's still a DC movie, but ... it's good! Not in the Wonder WomanI have a message about empowerment and taking superheroes-as-a-symbol seriously” sense, but in the “let's have fun with this shit” sense.

Hell, pretty sure a good chunk of how entertaining it is comes from how much everyone involved seems to be enjoying it. McGregor definitely is, with his narcissistic Roman Sionis, as is Robbie, who gets to play banana to almost everyone else on board. You get the impression that everyone involved went “fuck it, they're never giving me another chance like this, I'm gonna go nuts”.

(Almost undoubtedly true for Rosie Perez, as she has three strikes against her – she's female, Latina, and over 30. She's having just as much fun with this as Robbie, if not more.)

(Sub-parenthetical: By the way, now David Ayer is saying he made a “soulful drama” which was “beaten into a comedy”. The man behind the cinematic abattoir refuse that is Sabotage was going for soulful. Maybe whomever beat Suicide Squad should have hit harder.)

Back to Birds of Prey, though.

I'm not going to say it's brilliant, or perfect. Still, the sole fact that it exists at all in this era of mass-market movies designed by executives dog-piling into a committee feels like an accomplishment. I don't expect we will get to see another coke-fueled bleached-hair short-short-wearing Majima Goro gender-swap leading a movie any time soon.

I have no idea what Margot Robbie is holding over Warner executives, but here's to her continuing to use it for funsies.

#birdsofprey #margotrobbie #ewanmcgregor #rosieperez #cathyyan #dccomics