Strange Vistas


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.


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

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

My snark reflex was to dismiss I, Tonya as “baby’s first Scorsese”. A part of me still wants to make the whole piece about how much director Craig Gillespie cribs from the diminutive director’s style. It would be unfair to the sensational acting work, though.

There’s a chance y’all don’t know this story, as it happened before Instagram was a thing.

In January 1994, figure skating exploded onto the news everywhere. Someone had assaulted Nancy Kerrigan, a contestant, one day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, and tried to break her leg with a telescopic baton. Suspicion promptly fell on Tonya Harding, another contestant.

Now, when I describe it like that, it kind of sounds like a professional hit. The whole thing was a circus. The story is so bananas that I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling its insanity. It was so absurd; it became irresistible. Newspapers in places that had zero interest in figure skating, much less U.S.-specific events, kept publishing the latest developments, chronicling fuck-up after fuck-up. It was a time before always-on global news was a thing – CNN had just gotten its big break a few years earlier with the Gulf War. It lasted for months – it’s my first memory of the news cycle morphing into world-wide entertainment, a transition that would cement itself a few months later with the O.J. Simpson case.

(Oh god, can you imagine that happening now? The attackers would probably have streamed the entire thing on Twitch.)

Now there’s I, Tonya, almost three decades later, and it feels more like a goofy comedy than a recounting of events. Can’t say if Gillespie has a style of his own, but can’t argue that he chose the right one to ape for this. Still, never mind the films it cribs from – this is a movie of performances.

Allison Janey has fun with a showy part as LaVona, Harding’s asshole mother. Unfortunately for us, she isn’t in most of this, but probably for the best as far as the rest of the cast is concerned – otherwise, you’d remember nobody else but her.

Margot Robbie plays Harding as the perfect mix of physical grace and uncouth determination, a bundle of bad decisions with a drive to win, a go-getter attitude strapped to someone who started way behind the curve. You can still see Robbie in there, most of the time, but she’s good at hiding herself under a mask of spite-fueled resolve, at first, then a grimace of anger and resentment.

Sebastian Stan is a surprise – he disappears so thoroughly into the part of the useless white-trash husband LaVona refers only as “moustache,” that I didn’t recognize him at all. It’s not a “lose 100 pounds in a week” Christian Bale-style physical transformation. Stan sheds every bit of self-confidence and poise instead to vanish into the mild affectations of Jeff, an individual who knows his only distinguishing characteristic is his shave. Stan makes you feel both that Jeff tries to lift himself by associating with someone talented, and how he resents the fact that his crucial achievement in life was suckering someone with world-class skills into a co-dependent relationship.

Lots of resentment going around in this story, coming from whatever iota of self-awareness these people have.

Not Shawn Eckardt, though. Eckardt was Jeff’s friend, Tonya’s bodyguard, and a key individual in reaching out to the attackers. Eckardt is such an oblivious human caricature that I could not believe Paul Walter Hauser didn’t make up his portrayal to maximize the comedic effect. He is a guy who has forgotten he’s no longer on his basement conspiracy roleplaying game, who chose to cosplay full-time in real life. Kudos to Hauser for being able to play him with a straight face – most people couldn’t have managed.

All together, they managed to make me forget my initial pastiche impression and turn the movie into something that is half biopic and half sociological tragicomedy.

The most fascinating thing about the movie, though? The fact that it almost makes you feel sorry for Harding. It’s evident that many of her wounds are self-inflicted, but she is also competing in a system that judges not only her skill on the ice but also how closely she can pass for a prim finishing-school princess.

It’s worth recommending if you want to see some delightful acting, or to revel in the strangeness of the real. Life can be a gigantic clown car full of people who believe they are much smarter than their actions show them to be.

#itonya #margotrobbie #sebastianstan #allisonjaney #paulwalterhauser

It's hard to dissect Quentin Tarantino's latest, Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, without going into anything that would spoil some aspect of the movie, so read after the image at your own peril.

Short summary: the performances are sensational, there's a lot to love in it, but the movie never comes together and feels like a rambling, improvised in-joke, where if you know the guy who's telling it you can tell where he's leading, but you're still going to have to wait for almost three hours for him to get to his punchline.

I want to love it. I was mostly entertained by it. But it's a bit of a mess.

Poster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Hardy har har.

Let's first get the negative out of the way.

In the odd chance you didn't know, Hollywood is set around the Tate Murders. It's not about Sharon Tate – not for the most part. It's about washed-up TV cowboy Rick Dalton and his stunt double and rent-a-friend Cliff Booth. Tate features prominently from the start of the movie, though, including a voice over introduction by Damian-Lewis-in-a-wig's Steve McQueen, as does her friend Jay Sebring who was murdered alongside her. Manson's family also keeps popping up, even if Charlie himself only shows up briefly.

If you knew about the Sharon Tate murders, and you know what Tarantino pulled on Inglorious Basterds, then you know where this is going the moment you find out that Rick Dalton lives right next door to Tate and Polanski, and that Cliff Booth can handle himself in a not-so-friendly contest against Bruce Lee.

If you don't... then Tate, Sebrig, McQueen and all the rest being there probably won't make all that much sense to you. They have no place in the movie other than as a lure, to give us a hint of where this circuitous exploration of lates 60s film production is going to end up.

There's two ways this could have gone and worked. In one, Tate is a key part of the story and we spend our proper time getting to know her. On the other, it's not about her, either because she doesn't matter or we know who she is, so we can skip over the boring bits. The latter is what you do if you expect that we're all in on the joke.

If we are already in on the joke... well, then... just keep the story focused on Rick and Cliff, whydontcha.

With all this narrative meandering, we end up in a situation where the performances are sensational, but the movie never gels.

Leonardo DiCaprio is impressive. He plays the part of a washed-up burned-out drunkard former star so well that, in a scene with Timothy Olyphant, a stiff actor who barely has a single face to show up with, DiCaprio manages to make Olyphant look like a natural performer at ease with his craft.

Margot Robbie is a delight as Sharon Tate. She's in it for no particular reason, and she isn't in it very much, but when she shows up, she glows. There's a lovely little scene when she's sitting in a theater, watching herself in The Wrecking Crew, where she comes across as an overgrown girl excited about how far she's gotten.

Brad Pitt is in it. His effortless cool must take a lot of effort. His best scene – drunk, in a boat, half-ignoring his wife's angry ramblings – is gone in a flash. He seems to be having fun.

Oh, nevermind. I forgot. Almost all performances are great.

Why is Al Pacino even in here, sucking the air out of a couple of scenes? Unlike others playing bit parts – Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Zoë Bell – he's not even an in-joke for Tarantino fans. But Quentin had never worked with him, though, so why not throw him in as well?

Because Tarantino is running wild and the movie suffers from it. It's so self indulgent that it feels like half the movie are ladies’ feet.

Which is sad, because I'd actually recommend Climax and The Naked Director (which I've yet to write up) as stories where the theme of running wild is the fuel that the movie burns, but the movies themselves are better for their restraint.

Sure, create for yourself. Throw a foot close-up here or there.

But if you are a chef, you cook not only for yourself but for your diners as well. Hollywood has all the right ingredients, and Tarantino managed to wrap it up with a violently amusing desert at the end, but the courses before it were all bunched up, piled on top of each other, as if he couldn't decide what to serve and what to leave out. Most of the flavor ends up washed out.

#quentintarantino #leonardodicaprio #bradpitt #margotrobbie

I made the mistake of watching Suicide Squad while stuck on a plane.

This shit's even worse than everyone said.

Not even an overly tired brain and a steady stream of alcohol made it bearable.

I was going to do a write-up about it, then decided there's no reason to subject you to carry anything more related to that rusted barrel brimming with lukewarm narrative sewage in your head as well.

It makes you long for the writing in Lifeforce. Which also had a better-acting non-actress as the antagonist at the center of the pretty-lights world-destroying vortex. And which even with its premise of “young, naked space vampire” was less of a barely-put-together cash-grab than this.

#suicidesquad #dccomics #davidayer #margotrobbie