Harley Quinn lifts ‘Birds of Prey’

By Tom Von Malder | May 10, 2020
Photo by: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment The cast of "Birds of Prey" with Margot Robbie and her CGI hyena pet on the couch.

Owls Head — Birds of Prey and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Warner Bros./DC, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 108 min.). Most of the fat in this film is in its over-wordy title (why the “One”?). As Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie (also a producer) is a delightful, wacky protagonist, creating havoc throughout Gotham after her break-up with the Joker. Robbie also played Harley Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” and will play her again in both “The Suicide Squad” and the announced “Gotham City Sirens.”

To say Harley is bubbly is putting in mildly; she literally bounces through the film. And while she may have dumped her man – putting her life in danger from all those she harmed while under the Joker’s protection – she still is keeping her pet hyena, named Bruce after Bruce Wayne. Her sense of humor is twisted, her weapons often are weird but awesome and she has some excellent fighting moves. Robbie plays her with equal delight.

The film opens with an animated biography of Harley, narrated by Harley, that goes through to her break-up with the Joker. Two minutes in, the film, written by Christina Hodson (“Bumble Bee,” “Shut In”) and directed by Cathy Yan (“Dead Pigs”), tuns to live action and Harley has joined the roller derby, where no one can literally stand in her way.

There is a new assassin in town, whom everyone calls the Crossbow Killer, but later is revealed to be the revenge-seeking Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Live Free or Die Hard”), aka Helena Bertinelli, destined to become one of the Birds of Prey. Perhaps to my shame, I really knew little about the Birds of Prey prior to this film, other than what cropped up on TV’s “Arrow.” I also had no previous knowledge of villain Roman Sionis, whom some think hired the Crossbow Killer. Roman, who also goes by the Black Mask, as he sometimes wears one and it is the name of his nightclub, likes to have his right-hand man (Chris Messina of “Argo,” TV’s “The Sinner” as Victor Zsasz) carve off the faces of his victims, dead or alive. Sionis is played by one of my favorite actors, Ewan McGregor of the “Star Wars” films, with just the right touch of evilness and nastiness.

Another future member of Birds of Prey is Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell of TV’s upcoming “Lovecraft Country”), aka Dinah Lance, who works as a singer in Roman’s nightclub, but soon is promoted to being his driver.

The film’s frenetic, fun-filled action slows a bit midway for the backstories of Black Canary and Huntress, as well as taken-advantage-of police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez of TV’s “Rise,” “Bounty Hunter”), who also will become a Bird of Prey. Steven Williams (TV’s “The X-Files”) plays Capt. Erickson, her former partner who stole the credit in a case and took her promotion. The film shows how all four women become empowered to take charge of their own destiny by supporting each other.

Thrown into the mix is teenage pickpocket Cassandra “Cass” Cain” (Ella Jay Basco), who just happens to have lifted the Bertinelli diamond from Victor that Roman wanted because bank account numbers to a fortune are etched into it. Helena had been the sole survivor when Roman had her family wiped out.

Among the film’s many highlights are Harley’s humorous escape from Roman, a brief “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical interlude hallucination, Harley’s cool fighting skills and the climatic mass fight in the fun house – set to Heart’s “Barracuda” – between the gals and Black Mask and his assembled army. The fun house set is an amazing visual delight that includes a riot of color as well as a turntable floor flanked by large, flexible hands. Throughout the film there is a pop art approach to the colors and backgrounds, except for the more somber, everyday bits of a different side of Gotham than is usually shown in the Batman films. Kudos to Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, K.K. Barrett’s production design and Erin Benach’s costume designs.

Extras include the ability to watch the film in Birds Eye View Mode, which includes pic-in-pic interviews and pop-up trivia notes. Other extras look at the origin of the film and its approach (8:26); Roman Sionis’ desperate need to be loved and admired (4:57); a look at the roller derby scene (4:29); an excellent look at the production design, which used Queens and the Bronx for Gotham rather than the usual Manhattan (10:38); a look at the costumes (7:39); a look at the visual effects and emphasis on Harley’s personality and how a Weta used a German Shepherd as the basis for hyena Bruce (6:03); and a gag reel (2:02). Grade: film and extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Better Days (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray, NR, 135 min.). Originally pulled from distribution by the Chinese government – possibly for what could be perceived as criticism of China’s education system – this affecting film tells a strong story of the effect of bullying by schoolmates can do to a person. In fact, it opens with the suicide of one such victim, but quickly switches to the successor victim, a high school senior who cared enough to cover the dead girl’s body in the school’s central courtyard.

That girl is Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu of “Kung Fu Monster”), a very bright student, but one whose single mother has a poor reputation due to selling inferior quality goods. Nian is bullied both in school and outside of school. One evening traveling home – it seems the school day in China is incredibly long – Nian sees a young man being brutally beaten by four others. She starts to call the police, which helps turn the tide of the attack. Afterwards, the young man (C-pop superstar Jackson Yee of TFBoys as Bei) offers to pay back the money that was stolen from her and to fix her cellphone. At one point, Bei tells her that either you bully others or you get bullied.

The two began a friendship that develops over a couple of meetings, until Bei, a small-time criminal, offers to be her protector. He starts shadowing her, either from behind or across the street and, at one point, confronts Nian’s attackers, threatening them. The bullying of Nian continues, with one girl tripping her so she falls down stairs. After that, Nian goes to the police, where young policeman Zheng Yi (Fang Yin) seems very sympathetic. Three girls get suspended and Nian’s homeroom teacher gets fired. One day with Bei not around – the police have picked him up for a lineup of possible rape suspects -- the suspended students get even more aggressive toward Nian.

This leads to one of the film’s more emotional scenes, to be followed by a couple others, including one that made me cry. There is a shift toward the end to more of a police procedural when one of Nian’s attackers goes missing. It is a notable shift in tone.

The film starts 60 days before seniors in Chinese high schools are slated to take the highly competitive college entrance exam. The schools are immense, fortress-looking structures and the film is filled with images of large groups of students going to and from school, being forced to call out repeated slogans during assemblies, inside and out, and an even greater mass of students – most beneath a sea of umbrellas – arriving to take the two-day college entrance exams.

He director is Derek Kwok-Cheung Tsang (“Soulmate,” which also starred Dongyu). The film won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the 2020 Hong Kong Directors Guild Awards, was named a “Film of Merit” and won Best Director at the 2020 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards and took home 2020 China Film Association awards for Actress of the Year (Dongyu) and Best New Performer (Yee). The two brief extras look at the work of the two lead actors: 3:32 for Yee and 2:49 for Dongyu. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 1 star

The Dark Red (Dark Sky, DVD, NR, 98 min.). The battered woman claimed her newborn child was literally torn from her body and stolen. Nine days out of intensive care, she is being interviewed by a psychiatrist at the mental hospital where she has been assigned. Is her horrible story true or is it a continuation of her lengthy history of mental illness? That is what “The Dark Red,” directed by Dan Bush (“The Vault,” “The Signal”) and co-written by Bush and Conal Byrne, sets out to answer.

The aggrieved woman is Sybil Warren (April Billingsley of HBO’s “The Outsider”), while her evaluator is Dr. Jackie Deluce (Kelsey Scott of TV’s “Insecure,” “Fear the Walking Dead: Passage”). Dr. Deluce has Sybil recount her life during the first session. As a child, she was orphaned and eventually adopted by Katherine Warren, her DSS caseworker, who found her inside a box in an isolated trailer, with the corpse of her mother on a nearby bed. Warren, moved Sybil from family to family over the years “to protect her,” but eventually adopted her. Warren, however, was killed about a year earlier. As Sybil ages, she realizes she has the ability to read minds, but she is not believed and it only adds to diagnoses of mental disorder.

Continuing with her background, Sybil tells how she met David Holyfield (co-writer Byrne) at Katherine’s funeral. The two find empathy in each other and enter a relationship, with Sybil eventually becoming pregnant. When David finally reluctantly takes her to meet his parents, it turns out they are members of a cult or something similar and drug her and take her baby by Caesarian section – if Sybil’s story is true.

The movie has basically three parts. The first is rather ho-hum, but the baby abduction second part is good. For the third part, it turns into a revenge film with a satisfying ending. There are possibilities for sequels, but no extras. Grade: film 2.75 stars

The Photograph (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 106 min.). While this African-American romance is competently made and acted, the story did almost nothing for me. I found the secondary story of what happened to one of the main character’s mother to be slightly more interesting than the main romantic story.

LaKeith Stanfield (“Knives Out,” “Sorry to Bother You”) plays New York City-based photojournalist Michael Block, who is working on a story about the recovery of Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana after weathering Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For his story, he is interviewing fisherman Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan of TV’s “Stranger Things,” “Daredevil”). While at Isaac’s, Michael is struck by the photos around the house, photos taken by Isaac’s ex-lover Christina Eames, who left him to move to New York to find a career some 30 years previously. Intrigued, Michael follows up on Christina when he is back home, finding her daughter, Mae Morton (Issa Rae of “Little,” TV’s “Insecure”), who is an associate curator at the Queens Museum.

Mae is still dealing with the recent death of her mother, who was distant and more focused on her career in life, but who left her a lengthy letter, outlining her life. A second letter was to be delivered to Mae’s father, whom she had no knowledge of until reading the first letter her mother left. Michael has a history of relationships that have not worked out and he has applied for a job with the Associated Press in London, England. Both appear to be major blocks to any long-lasting relationship.

As Mae and Michael begin a relationship, there are plenty of flashbacks to Christina’s life through the letter. Who Mae’s father turns out to be no surprise.

Very little actually happens in the movie, but writer-director Stella Meghie (“The Weekend”) does provide a nice ending. Extras include a brief making-of (5:37); a look at culture in film (3:48); and a look at the photographs in the film (2:24). Grade: film and extras 2 stars

Action of the Tiger (1957, Warner Archive Collection, NR, 92 min.). This film, made in CinemaScope and set briefly in Greece and mostly in Albania, sets up star Van Johnson as a tough guy, but as usual he has a heart of gold. The film has plenty of action, a good supporting bit by Herbert Lom (the “Pink Panther” films) and excellent on-location photography.

Johnson (“Battleground,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “Brigadoon,” “In the Good Old Summertime”) plays Carson, a boat captain who runs some smuggling between Greece and Communist Albania in a beginning Cold War world. Carson is approached by Tracy (Martine Carol, a French “bombshell” making her English-language debut), who apparently has plenty of money to spare. She wants Carson to take her to Albania so she can visit her brother Henri (Gustavo Rocco, later Rojo in such films as “The Valley of Gwangi”), a Communist who got into trouble and has been exiled as a traitor. It turns out he also has been blinded.

Carson more than twice refuses Tracy, but she sneaks aboard and Carson can’t stop to let her off because he and assistant Mike, who has been in a barfight, are being chased by police. In Albania, Carson’s connection is Kol Stendho (Jose Nieto). Carson ends up accompanying Tracy to the village where her brother is, but they have to leave by horseback with the Albanian police after them as Stendho does not meet them for the return trip. En route to the Greek border, including walking some 50 miles, they encounter Trifon (Lom), who develops a desire to marry Tracy.

Carson’s assistant Mike, who is a loutish drunk who gambles and tries to force himself on Tracy, is played by a young Sean Connery in what I believe was only his second feature film. He is in the beginning a lot, sporting a beard of several days, disappears for much of the film and reemerges near the very end. The director is Terence Young, who would go on to make the classic “Dr. No,” with Connery as James Bond for the first time, in 1962. Young would also direct Connery as Bond in “From Russia With Love” and “Thunderball.” There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.75 stars

Gunsmoke: The Final Season (1974-75, CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 19 hours, 58 min.) and Gunsmoke: The Complete Series (1955-75, CBS/Paramount, 143 DVDs, NR, 440 hours, 32 min.). And so, the last of TV’s beloved Western “Gunsmoke” comes home on DVD. There were 24 episodes in the 20th, final season for Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) in Dodge City.

With location shooting at Old Tucson, Dillon, Festus (Ken Curtis) and Newly (Buck Taylor) pose as outlaws to outwit the bandits who have captured Doc (Milburn Stone). In other episodes, Dillon recruits an ex-lawman, now an alcoholic, to help clean up a lawless town. In the multiple episode “Thirty a Month and Found,” three itinerant cattle drovers take desperate measures when they sense their cowboy way of life is vanishing. That episode arc won two writing awards: the 1974 Writers Guild Award for Best Episode, Drama and the 1974 Western Writers of America’s Silver Spur Award for Best Western Television Script. In the series finale, “The Sharecroppers,” Festus must help a family of farmers plant a crop before their time runs out. Guest stars this season include Nick Nolte, Lee J. Cobb, John Saxon, Ned Beatty and Robert Urich.

Extras for the final season include episodic previews, a photo gallery and a chat with “Gunsmoke” experts and authors Ben Costello (“Gunsmoke: An American Institution”) and Beckey Burgoyne (“Perfectly Amanda, Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty to Dodge and Beyond”).

The massive complete series box set, which would take 18 days 8 hours and 32 min. of continual watching to finish, contains all 635 digitally remastered episodes and all the featurettes, original sponsor spots, promos and audio commentaries from the previously released individual seasons. The first nine seasons where filmed in black-and-white and the next three in color and black-and-white, with seasons 13 and on in full color.

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