Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

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Birds of Prey is a catastrophe.

It employs violence not only to speak in place of characters, but of the movie itself. “Look how gritty I am”, it begs the audience. “I’m not like those other DC movies you hated it”. You’re right, because you’re even worse. The violence here reminded me of Hobo with a Shotguna cheap 80s looking B- movie in which everybody but the titular hobo was a sadist. There the buckets of gore at least made sense, keeping up with the sensibilities of a grindhouse picture. In Birds of Prey they just seem desperate, as if DC is just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and finally make them as successful as Marvel. Hint: it’s less garbage like this, and more stuff like Joker

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a collection of mannerisms and occasional outbursts of madness, instead of a fully fleshed out character. Her motivations seems to be “I don’t want people to kill me”, so the performance is mostly reactionary. It’s a horrible way to gain engagement.

The constant narration, in addition of breaking any momentum, reminds one of better movies in the same vein, particularly the Deadpool ones. It is so painfully obvious, from the breaking of the fourth wall to the edgy jokes, that Birds of Prey wants to be the next Deadpool. The problem is that Deadpool was never trying to emulate anybody else; rather, it’s astounding success was because there was nothing else quite like it on the market. Now, a few years removed from it, using profanity like currency will only get you so far.

Birds of Prey tries so hard to copy other better movies, while at the same time popping out for being so unique, so colorful. It aims at being a successful hybrid of anti-hero shenanigans and girl power, but it utterly and completely fails. This is a Frankenstein of a flick, a mishmash of horrible ideas and terrible execution all together forming one of the most absolutely unfunny, cringe and pathetic movies I have ever, ever seen.

Best Films 2019

My mom watches movies in segments. She divides her attention between her phone, the screen, the kitchen, the weather and the neighbor’s dog. It takes her literal days to finish watching movies sometimes. My dad watches one movie every month, sometimes every two months. I joke with them by asking how I can possibly be related to them when our movie watching habits are so dissimilar. But sometimes I don’t joke. Rather, I look Godwards in gratitude. Surely I’ve done nothing radically different from my parents that would cause me to live cinema in a way that breathes vigor to my bones. Yet here I am again with the yearly list of the best films watched in 2019. 160 they were, a surprisingly high number considering I spent many months traveling. There must have been some nights in which I watched more than one, more than two. I recall these moments very, very fondly. And the following films even more so. 

 

HARRY POTTER SAGA

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Simultaneously a tender look at being a teenager and a parable of the biblical story of Jesus and Satan, the Harry Potter series is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Watched over the course of four spellbinding days, the level of engagement it stirred within me is unparalleled. Unmatched too are the echoes of the Gospel story present throughout, from the Messiah-like Harry to the astute ways the evil one assails our commitment to the cause. I won’t soon forget the night in which, after finishing my dinner, I rushed to my bedroom to watch Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. I sat in bed for five hours, bewitched by every little thing. The next day I told my mom that I was going to finish watching Harry Potter that night, and she apologized for not allowing me to watch them years before. I told her there was no need for an apology because it had turned out to be for the best. I discovered Harry Potter at just the right moment in life. 

THE FOUNTAIN

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Here’s something I’d never done before. Once the credits started to roll, I hit play and watched The Fountain all over again. A feast for the senses, The Fountain is a tragedy of lost love. It is also a triumphant reminder that one need not be crippled by the fear of death, for together we will live forever.

THE IRISHMAN

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The most elegiac film of Martin Scorsese’s storied career, The Irishman mourns the lives that are lived in service of all that is ultimately inconsequential. Subverting the expectations created three decades ago with his masterpiece Goodfellas, in which crime was glamorized and life was fast paced, The Irishman is a film only an old man could make. Rueful, wise, patient. Scorsese, pushing 80, has never shied away from his faith. The confession scene is not only for his protagonists, not only for his audience, but also for himself.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

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“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved.”

MARRIAGE STORY

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2019 delivered some of the best acting by men I’ve seen in a while. You couldn’t take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Robert DeNiro was phenomenal in The Irishman. And Adam Driver was absolutely superb, the best he has ever been, in Marriage Story. You watch him slowly disintegrate as the film progresses. The scene in which he pretends he’s fine after cutting himself by accident is a marvel. 

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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Ten months ago, reviewing this documentary for the first time, I wrote that “Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex”. No more needs to be said.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

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His films tend to be fun and easy to watch, but Tarantino outdid himself with this one.

COLUMBUS

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It happens, almost imperceptibly and not to everybody, but it happens. The moment you discover your parents, the people who were meant to nourish and see you thrive, are suffocating you. They don’t do it out of any ill will; they love you, after all. And you love them, and now you’re compelled to see them thrive, compelled to nourish them. It’s a reversal of the natural order, and it hurts your little heart. But it cannot be this way forever for you are young and you must leave them behind. This hurts your little heart some more. Columbus is a perfect distillation of this. 

SET IT UP

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In an age in which the rom-com is all but dead, here comes Zooey Deutsch to breathe new life into it and make it soar, soar, soar. 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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To call this the best superhero movie I’ve seen might be faint praise, considering my slight indifference towards most movies of its ilk. But it is anything but. Into the Spider-Verse is a colorful, hilarious, inventive and strangely moving picture about the hero’s journey. One, it turns out, we’re all in. 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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There comes a point in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which the viewers realize they’re not just watching a movie. This Eureka moment is not contained to any particular minute; it might occur when Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arrives from the east with an army that will save the day; or when Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) delivers his speech at the Black Gate; or even when Sam (Sean Astin) saves Frodo (Elijah Wood) from a giant spider. This is because The Lord of the Rings is so delicately crafted, its filmmakers so sincere in adapting this seminal work of storytelling, that it becomes a modern day fable, which was probably one of the many visions J. R. R. Tolkien had when writing it all those years ago.

Modern blockbusters live and die by the mono-myth, or the hero’s journey. This states that heroes will embark on adventures, face life-threatening circumstances, and return home transformed. It is the pillar that drives most mainstream movies, and in this era of superhero saturation is what makes them interchangeable with one another, the audience being too familiar with established story beats. The Lord of the Rings, by virtue of the passion Peter Jackson brought to the material, is possibly the best representation I can think of that was meant for mass consumption.

In addition, and unless Tolkien’s Christian roots are deceiving me, this is ultimately a story about hope. So presenting a protagonist who is weak, surrounded by danger and unsure of whether he’ll make it to the end of the journey is a nice way to gain the audience’s empathy. To follow Frodo’s journey is to see yourself reflected in the character: the heavy burden to carry can be whatever ails you; the doubts expressed can be your doubts. Thank God then, for true friends like Sam. Thank God also for the happy ending, and for the reminders that got us there, either from friends or from the divine, to stay strong.

A+

Avengers: Endgame

avengers-endgame-posters-1-600x883Let’s go over the difference between something that’s sad and something that’s moving. Anybody can provide examples of something sad. A beloved character dying; characters crying; puppies with cancer.
Something moving, on the other hand, requires a portrayal of events that run emotionally deeper than what’s on screen.

For instance, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) vanishing in a cloud of dust at the end of Infinity War. Sad? Yes, its a kid pleading with a friend for another shot at life. Moving? Nope. What we see is what we get. This example is what I call Surface Level Sadness, and it’s what most blockbusters employ to wring tears out of their easily manipulated audience. It’s definitely the formula Marvel has been employing to great success for the past decade.

Something occurs in Endgame though, a feat that had never been accomplished in MCU history before. There’s a couple honest to goodness moving moments. The characters don’t have to cry to let us know this is a “sad moment”, nor do they tell us how they feel. Rather, this is the only mature enough Marvel flick to understand that sometimes a longing gaze or a loving embrace can convey much more emotion than a million words. Captain America (Chris Evans) quietly observing the love of his life through a glass window; Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) thanking his dad; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) resting in his mother’s arms.

Sure, the final confrontation between 2 CGI armies is loud enough to almost make you lose track of the human element that’s shone throughout the entire film up until that point, but the movie regains its balance with that final shot. This shot, which I consider the single greatest final shot in MCU history, takes us back to the greatest strength of this silly and sometimes exhilarating superhero flick: what relates all of these great heroes with us are not their extraordinary abilities, but their ordinary dreams and desires. To burn bright with the hope of a better world, a purpose, a kiss.

A- 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Welp, it finally happened and I am as shocked as you are. After six years of watching slight variations on the same superhero approach to blockbuster filmmaking, I’ve naturally become weary. This isn’t in any way a knock on those types of movies: entertainment that is meant to be consumed by the widest possible group of people does not allow much room for subtlety. I understand executives must receive as large a return on their multi million dollar investment as possible! For those of us who flock to the cinema to experience art first and then entertainment, this “epidemic of passable movies” can be more than a little dispiriting.

So I wasn’t in any rush to catch the latest Spider-Man flick. Now that I have, my soul is pumped full of enthusiasm for the wonders that only the cinema can achieve. All those colors! The animation! The emotion! Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best superhero movie I’ve seen. The only thing that prevented Logan from being a superb movie of its genre was it’s villain; it felt too generic, with standard evil guy motivations. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features a villain that wants to bring his dead family back to life. Have we seen that before? Probably, but it’s the way it’s presented. Indeed, Kingpin is probably on screen for no more than ten minutes, yet his motivations ring true. His is not just another attempt at world destruction for the sake of script demands.

And the same can be said of the protagonist, Miles Morales, and his cadre of Spider buddies. Wow, what a beautiful character arc! I’m referring not only to the Morales’s one, but also to the one Peter B. Parker embarks upon. He begins a depressed and lonely divorcee, runs away from his demons, confronts them, and at the end decides to take a leap of faith. Maybe he can start anew, or maybe he can’t. Yet the fact that the film presents him with such an emotional journey, compared to the A-B-Z trajectory that superheroes go through on a majority of these movies, speaks highly to the faith the filmmakers have in the audience. It has been rewarded by my response to their work. Let others hopefully take note.

Deadpool 2

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If by year’s end I were to craft a list detailing my favorite scenes of all the movies I watched in 2018, the weather advisory in Deadpool 2 would be at the top.
What did I do to deserve such a comedic gem?

I like to think that my blatant enjoyment of this parachute sequence (I was laughing so hard I had to turn to my neighbor, I couldn’t contain myself) is a reward for all the times I have sat in a movie theater, indifferently observing men in tights saving the planet over and over again.
Every superhero movie that I have ever watched is not so unmemorable now that it led, in one way or another, to the creation of this unparalleled comedy spectacle.

A-

Avengers: Infinity War

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The universal language of hope is why this flick has broken every box office record in history. As cinema it is not particularly profound, nor does it prove insightful to the follies and manners of humankind. But who really needs our nature to play out on the screen, when most of us go to the theater to escape reality, not dive deeper into it?

Superhero movies are box office behemoths because they portray the world as it should be-sure, there’s extraterrestrial invasions all the time, but there are also men and women of good, men and women who do right for right’s sake, who willingly lay down their lives for strangers, and who will never stop until all darkness has been vanquished.

It is this what we aspire to do, to be able to correct the wicked course of the world. Superhero movies are wildly, maniacally successful because they display our dire need for a savior, and how incredibly cool it looks when we finally let them take the wheel.

B

Black Panther

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Black Panther is the most personal and thoughtful of all of Marvel studios oeuvre so far, which automatically makes it the best one. We all know the tried and true template every flick of this kind adheres to, so I won’t even recap it here. It is safe to say that Black Panther does not suffer (at least, not for a solid 85% of the time) from the impositions these kinds of movies usually do.

Add to that the greatest and most relatable, thrillingly alive villain in its body of work, and this is one superhero movie that truly deserves its praise.

B+

Justice League

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That a movie this stupid has been so massively successful on a worldwide basis tells me, well, I don’t really know what it tells me, if anything, nor do I know what it means. Do we deserve flicks like this because despite our airs of knowledge, we are nothing but creatures of habit that get aroused by big, fancy explosions?

Does it tell us that the great artists, thinkers and people of note throughout history all lived for nothing, now that their efforts have been forgotten, replaced by crap like freaking Justice League?

Or does it all not matter, because crap has existed since the dawn of humanity and will continue to do so, and personal entertainment preference has little to nothing to do with the state of the planet?

I do not know any of this. What is a certainty, however, is that this is perhaps the absolute worst superhero movie I have ever seen.

D