Reviews

Justice League: The Snyder Cut – Review

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for a great superhero movie, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about Zack Snyder. I loved the dark brooding of Watchmen, found it worked fairly well with Man Of Steel, but by the time we got to the bizarrely cut and overwrought Batman Versus Superman, I was very much in two minds about his films.

The counterpoint to that dark, brooding DC Universe of Snyder, and of the nihilistic and frankly depressing Batman trilogy was Wonder Woman, which pointed the whole franchise in a new direction. It succeeded in being a critical success and a box office hit, which the strangely cut deeply flawed Suicide Squad managed only half of.

Snyder has a habit of making grandiose gestures. His notes and techniques include the extreme macro lensed close-up shot, the focusing on the apparently inconsequential detail to stand for the whole scene, the dark and contrasty action sequence shot in slow motion and a few other trademarks which make parody of his style all too easy.

With this in mind – the grinding grimness of the DC franchise and the success of Wonder Woman, the executives at DC used personal tragedy in Snyder’s private life to take his final movie in the Superman trilogy away from him and hand it over to Joss Whedon to give it a more Avengersy, quirky sensibility.

Now I look back on it, I can see that the resulting 2017 Justice League was a disaster. My review at the time tried to be upbeat, because the film was at least an attempt at being upbeat – yet the fact that I focused less on the movie and more on people talking in the theatre is telling. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn’t stand comparison with the Snyder Cut. The movie didn’t allow enough space or time for its characters to evolve and peppered the story with inappropriate notes – stupid petty arguments between Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne. The villain, Steppenwolf, was a 2D cipher whose motives and inner life were as solid as the CGI code he was obviously made from, and the resurrection of Superman was rushed and unconvincing. This knocked on to the final action sequence which was essentially the Avengers rehashed, but with less panache. Overall, the academically recognised word for it is Yeuk.

In fact, it was so far removed from the trailers, with nearly all the previewed key scenes absent that I nearly asked for my money back for misselling.

And so I had both high and low hopes for The Snyder Cut that fans had called for with their social media campaign #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Surely, it had to be better than the Whedon version… but really, that wasn’t saying much. And would it have the weird haste of BvS or the downbeat feel of Man Of Steel?

With this movie it’s clear that Snyder has been given free rein to do exactly what he wants and to realise his vision fully. And his vision is grand indeed.

Some have called the long slow build-up to this movie boring. And let’s face it, at 4 hours long, it could be a valid point. But that only comes from not committing to the movie in its entirety. When you settle in, knowing you’re getting a full four hours to unwind an emotionally rich and varied story, then it’s allowed to have moments of brooding.

And brooding it has in spades. But unlike the Snyder Cut’s predecessors, it also has great moments of humour. Barry Allen is a treat: whacky, brilliantly nerdy and at times hilarious. Occasional scenes between Gal Gadot’s Diana and Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne imply embarrassment at Bruce’s awkwardness – and humour at it. Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons is hilarious in his grim primness and his desire to control everything under his purview, down to the brewing of a cup of tea by the Themysciran goddess. Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman is genuinely funny in his ribbing of Wayne.

The reality is, the pace of the first section is the same sort of set-up you get in a film like The Longest Day (3 hours), as war preparations are made. And it is not short of action by any means – it’s simply that Snyder’s style uses the rhythm of the story-telling to allow the viewer to take breaths between action scenes and to build tension. It is most definitely not boring.

Some of my complaints about the Whedon Justice League are resolved in this movie. Observations that the Amazons are too weak against Steppenwolf are answered by a much extended Themyscira scene that sees the immortal women fighters putting up a much greater resistance to the alien encroachment. And but for the arrival of the cavalry three seconds too late, it literally could have gone either way. This is also true of Superman, who sits out most of this film, while the balance of powers between the heroes in the final sequence is much better done in this version.

The movie has its peculiarities. The oddest thing to get used to is the 4:3 aspect, which makes it reminiscent of old 1920s movies in some ways, or like watching an old 1970s tv show, rather than the widescreen one associates with these grand over-the-top, almost operatic films. It’s still something that seems strange – especially to someone who has gone to the bother of setting up a cinema in his office to get the full widescreen big sound experience.

Yes, the movie is dark. But it isn’t oppressive and portentous in the way Man of Steel was. And the back story of Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and the time the film takes to unwind it makes it clear how pivotal he is to the entire story, something entirely missed in the Whedon version.

The film is occasionally unintentionally funny. Steppenwolf does not come across as menacing, rather he is a bit of a sad case with a lisp. The framing of his face in his armour makes him look a little bit nerdy and hypersensitive – something of a failure – and not quite the evil supervillain one expects him to be.

My only real complaint is the tedious Epilogue scene, which speaks of a much longer project with all of Snyder’s problems as a director seeming to be concentrated in its grim post-Apocalyptic and drawn-out dialogue between Batman and The Joker. For anyone now calling to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, that tedious scene should be enough on its own to waylay any thoughts of that happening. In many ways the triumph of the Snyder Cut is exactly why we should not #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. It’s done. It’s over. Get used to it.

But these are minor quibbles. The Snyder Cut is more than a simple improvement on the 2017 Whedon Justice League – it is a fully realised artistic vision, and as such, it makes me appreciate that actually, Snyder is a visionary involved in the same struggle so many artists are in: fighting market expectations to deliver what is in his heart. Here, with his Justice League, he gets closer to doing that than ever before.

Revisiting Songs from the Big Chair – A Cold War Vision?

Tears For Fears - Songs from the big chair

I think one of the big emotions I didn’t consciously notice in 1980s music which I’ve only really just started to appreciate on relistening, is an incredible sense of melancholy and anxiety.

Today, for example, I’ve been listening to the Tears for Fears album Songs From The Big Chair, and there is a lot of sadness and foreboding right through it – not just in the lyrics, which are often about confusion at being alive or being in the grip of events beyond your control – but also a sadness in the very structure of the melodies.

Even that classic tune Everybody Wants To Rule The World is essentially a warning to a newborn or newly conscious person about the madness s/he is about to encounter and the transient and ever-changing nature of existence.

If you consider the period it was written, the world was in the grip of a nuclear arms build-up, lyrics such as:

Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

take on a dark meaning.

And do these lines below echo the run for the nuclear shelter…

There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you
So glad we’ve almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world

…or are they about escaping to a new freedom from a dark space where the confining walls are at last knocked down? If so, is there an Orphean resonance? Is the singer’s attempt to save Eurydice who says she is right behind you doomed to failure?

The fact is, the lyrics are vague enough to be ambiguous, and for this reason there remains something in them that is deeply unsettling. It is a far cry from a love song, or even a song of grief or joy. It’s something else, darker and more confusing, despite its assured and steady, if not eaxctly upbeat tune.

For me, this is one of the realities of much of the popular music from this era. Beneath the surface there is much that is unsettled, uncertain and lost.

The album Songs From The Big Chair viewed in its entirety contains more of that uncertainty. From the experimental sampling tracks such as The Big Chair, with its child’s voice and what sounds like a knife being whetted or a sword drawn, to tunes with titles such as Broken, Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Empire Building, the whole album is far more unsettling than you might expect from what is usually regarded as a pop album.

Now I consider it anew, Songs From The Big Chair is a lightning rod for the fears and indeed tears that for me were always bubbling below the surface as a teen growing up in the 1980s.

It’s taken me this long to realise.

Wonder Woman 1984: a biting Trumpian satire

Wonder Woman 19984

In the wake of the storming of the Capitol by Trump Insurrectionists, Wonder Woman 1984 seems extraordinarily prescient, and here’s why.

!!WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS!!

When I first watched the latest offering from Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and the DC Universe, I admit there was something I didn’t get. Though its opening scenes featured the soaring golden sunlight of Themyscira, and Lily Aspel reprising her role as the young Diana in a gripping action sequence, it then came to 1984 Washington DC. On first viewing I couldn’t work out why.


Get your copy here

The hoodlums the Themysciran Goddess wipes the floor of a glitzy shopping mall with in the establishing action sequence seemed slight in contrast to the sombre trench warfare horrors of her first cinematic outing. But I soon realised the flat shadowless colour register straight out of ET, Trading Places and even Superman III revealed subtler horrors – and more urgent one in the context of the modern day.

The very first shots in the mall sequence show a consumer chomping down on a fat greasy burger, while older men exchange glances at the imagined invitation presented by the lycra-pinched posteriors of dancers sacrificing dignity to sell product. That Mall is no coincidence – because this film is all about consumerism, greed, desire and what happens when you ignore the consequences of wanting something to be true so hard you ignore reality.

Maxwell Lord against a gold background.
Trump is often portrayed against a gold background

The villain of this story is Maxwell Lord, portrayed here as a wannabe billionaire willing to offer the masses whatever they want so he can get ahead. The film is awash with parody of phoney self-help products, selfishness, greed and dishonesty – to oneself and others. Lord himself is associated with images of gold and wealth from the very start…

Farage and Trump in a gold lift
Maxwell Lord and far right amphibian super-villain Nigel Fartage against a gold background.

Sound familiar? Those themes are exactly the themes that have blighted America in the last four years – and if you still doubt this is its intention, the film is pretty explicit about which modernday swindler it is targeting.

The dialogue is revealing. When a disgruntled investor calls Maxwell Lord a conman, Lord defines exactly who he thinks he is: “I am not a conman! I am a television personality and a respected businessman…” And just in case you missed the reference, he says this from beneath a mass of bouffoned hair with just a hint of gold, while striding around in an ’80s powersuit.

One of Trump’s favourite insults is spoken through Maxwell Lord’s mouth. When the same investor calls Lord a loser in front of his son, he turns to his boy and tells him, “I am not a loser. He’s a loser!” Anyone who has seen Trump’s tweets knows that one well enough, and they will also recognise his accusation that anyone criticising him is in a conspiracy driven by jealousy – another straight lift from real life.

More of Trump’s false dreams and promises appear as the movie goes on. Take, for example, the sudden appearance in the Middle East of a wall that comes from nowhere at the behest of a fanatical Egyptian royal who wants to reinstate his ancestral realm.

The emir wishes “for all the heathens that have trod upon it to be kept out forever so that its glory may be renewed.” – Really?!? A MEGA movement to Make Egypt Great Again!?! One which excludes foreigners and anyone not from the “in” group? How apt!

In response to this wish of a nationalistic dreamer, a giant wall is created around the lands, described by a reporter’s voice/over as: “A bizarre phenomenon… called the Divine Wall. it’s an unexplainable event that now sees Egypt’s poorest communities entirely cut off from their only supply of fresh water…”

As well as making a wider point about the obviously divisive nature of wall building, one can’t help asking: is this wall a mirror image of the notorious Israeli separation wall that keeps Palestinians penned in with restricted water supply? Or is this an echo of those who died of dehydration crossing the Mexico-US border?

In the DC Universe the tyrant actually gets the wall he dreams of, and nobody pays for it. Except the whole world. But that’s later.

President Trump giving the thumbs up to President Kim
Psychopathic dictator President Kim gets the thumbs up from failed businessman Maxwell Lord.

Such Trumpian echoes, and, for example, the thumbs-ups from Lord, occur throughout the movie. Seen in this way the allegory of the Trumpian wannabe dictator who breaks all the rules is absolutely clear. Just before the film enters its third act, Lord arrives in the Whitehouse and discovers that POTUS wants “more” – in this case, more nuclear weapons. His wish is granted.

Still from Wonder Woman 1984 with Maxwell Lord giving the thumbs up.
Donald Trump giving the thumbs up in Wonder Woman 1984

In return, Lord steals the powers and command of POTUS: “You know what I’d like? I would want all of your power, influence, authority, all the respect you command – and the command everyone must respect! I mean what else is there?”

And then, for all those who have accused Trump of collusion with Russia and other foreign powers, another telling line: “Now, tell your people I would appreciate absolutely no interference whatsoever. No taxes, no rule of law, no limits. Treat me like a foreign nation, with absolute autonomy.”

And so, the Whitehouse is taken over by a businessman whose only interest is to serve himself.

In amongst all of this, the co-supervillain, Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah begins her own descent into cruelty and selfishness due to the corrupting influence of the Wish Stone. Initially a meek and mousey woman, she becomes a ruthless psychotic cat-creature by the end of the movie.

Picture of Kirsten Wiig in Wonder Woman 1984
Kayleigh McEnany: a semi human predator devoid of a conscience?

Let’s face it: a sweet-looking blonde bombshell who is actually a brawler and bruiser willing to do anything to protect her impostor leader seems eerily familiar to anyone who has seen Kayleigh McEnany, Kelly-Anne Conway or Hope Hicks at work spreading lies and misinformation.

Kayleigh McEnany, Whitehouse Press Office
Barbara Minerva – AKA Cheetah (Cheater?) is played by Kristen Wiig

The movie’s final scenes had a shocking resonance after the horrors of the Capitol Insurrection. In Wonder Woman 1984, the streets of not only America, but the world descend into chaos as the utter selfishness Lord unleashes with no regard for reality.

The Capitol Insurrection
Not Wonder Woman 1984

But this is not the only way in which Wonder Woman 1984 captures the nuances of the disastrous Trump administration. Placing the film in the 80s points directly at the roots of consumerism and greed, of aspiration without an acknowledgement of responsibility and a divorce from the cause and effect that relentless selfishness and shortsightedness has on society today. In fact, the very era when Trump first rose to major prominence.

Scene of anarchy at the Capitol in Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

The story accelerates toward the end, as we see Lord, the presidential interloper using television to get his message across to the whole world. He promises people whatever they want throughout, while his own power grows and grows as he takes something away from each person trapped by their unrecognised Faustian pact. The metaphor of a charismatic despot feeding on power stolen through abuse of the media is a stark and biting attack on the Trump regime. It is a story exactly of now.

The Capitol Insurrection
Also not Wonder Woman 1984

Each person within the movie is forced to face one painful truth – you can’t have whatever you want without paying for it in some way. When as a viewer I discovered that the supervillain behind this is none other than Wonder Woman’s Golden Age nemesis, the Duke of Deception, the extreme topicality of the movie hit home – it comes now, in the real world, after four years of being told that truth is lies, and that journalistic reports sounding the alarm against tyranny are fake news.

Toward the end of the film, as the world descends into anarchy and I looked at it through eyes that have also seen the Capitol insurrection, I found it eerily prescient – to such an extent that I got shivers down my spine.

We all knew what Trump was capable of but never thought he would achieve… but the sheer collapse of law and order that Jenkins captures in this script is near clairvoyant.

– How did she know? – I asked myself, as the credits began to roll. Perhaps more importantly, how did so many who voted for him not know?

The answer: because they were deceived – and that, in the end is what this film is about.

A Round-Up of Netflix’s Christmas Movies, 2020

Every year, Jackie and I watch cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. Many of them are medium ranking attempts at feelgood movies, some of which succeed and others of which fail. Some are actually great movies. And others are just the pits, with actors delivering lines from a wooden script, and looking like they would rather be anywhere else, or, are actually clueless as to how to make a scene come to life.

So, some of our faves:

Klaus. This is is absolutely brilliant. A great piece of animation, funny, wry, unexpected and stylish. A brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed alternative origin story for Santa Claus, its central message is exactly right for Christmas Enjoy.

Christmas with the Coopers. A surprisingly good cast, with John Goodman and Amanda Seyfried, Alan Arkin, Diane Keaton and Olivia Wilde is a classic “dysfunctional family gets together at Christmas” comedy. Slightly hit-and-miss, it has a good heart and some real wit to it, bolstered by strong performances.

The Christmas Chronicles and The Christmas Chronicles 2 is lifted by a fun performance by sexy Santa Kurt Russell, alongside Goldie Hawn playing an equally sexy older matriarch. While the first is a screwball comedy in parts, the second goes for full fantasy adventure, and both are endearing thanks largely to the heart displayed by Russell. Fun.

Holidate has a surprisingly tight and witty script which lifts it above the ersatz, while not quite escaping the well-worn made-for-tv holiday romance genre. It scores with its comedy moments more often than not, and that’s largely due to the performance of Emma Roberts, who is really likeable as the goofy girl who just can’t get a relationship to work.

Home for Christmas is a series rather than a movie, Norwegian with subtitles. There is genuine plot tension in this series (now running to two Christmas seasons) and one can’t help feeling a lot of empathy for the hapless but kindhearted nurse Johanne who is at the centre of a tangled web of relationship.

The Grinch is the latest CGI version of the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. As often happens with modern remakes, for some reason it is a little melancholy, focussing on the psychology of why the Grinch became so grinchy – but the high production values and funny script really help it out.
I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, but these stuck with me.

Now, for the middle rankers:

Not on Netflix, but Disneyplus is Christopher Robin. Not directly a Christmas movie, but certainly a holiday season type of a show. Unfortunately, this one struggles with a layer of melancholy that slows it down and brings down the holiday mood. Personally, I find Ewan MacGregor to be wooden in every role I’ve seen him play, and this is no exception, but the real issue is the rather downbeat Pooh bear, who is too introspective and sad to be likeable. It feels as if the scriptwriters were embarrassed that they had written a show with talking toys in, so took a long time making the drives “real” by doing a load of digging in childhood trauma. Tbh, it’s a show with talking toys in it. They should have got over themselves with that realisation.

Jingle Jangle. This is a near miss for me. Visually it’s stunning, using a kind of Steampunk aesthetic to present an alternative Victorian England fantasy in which the main roles are all taken by black actors, which is refreshing and not often seen in “traditional” Christmas movies.

The show is lavish, beautiful and with some great dance routines and singing. There is the right balance of adventure and some sterling performances from Madalen Mills and Lisa Davina Phillip – the latter being a revelation. She is funny, her comic timing superb and her singing and movement generally just fantastic. She really lets go in her character as Ms Johnston the postwoman, and the result is joyous indeed. I hope to see her again. Less impressive was the mumbling inwardness of Forest Whitaker, and the ineptitude of Kieron L Dyer as Edison. For this reason, this otherwise great show comes down to the middle tier.

The Christmas Prince series is now on its third outing. It’s cheap film, cheesy and utterly nonsensical. Yet the whole idea of a stuffy royal in an imaginary Germanic-looking European country called Belgravia where everyone speaks the Queen’s English falling for an unsophisticated US journalist has enough comedy moments (both intentional and unintentional) to make the series worth watching.

The Princess Switch series is a similarly fantastical slice of cheese in which the doppelganger of a European royal (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) surfaces from the USA, with all the comedy of manners and etiquette that entails. The utter tastelessness of what the director thinks an American audience will think is classy adds an extra layer of unintended comedy, and one can just relish the cheapness of it, alongside its good heart.

Christmas stinkers:

The Knight before Christmas looks like it should have it all. Comedy and magic as a mediaeval English knight magically appears in modern New York. But Josh Whitehouse (also seen in Poldark) stumbles through the script and his clear sense of embarrassment at playing such an awful role is clear in the lack of life he brings to each scene. This one also stars Vanessa Hudgens, and while she is endearing, the whole offer of the Princess Switch series is a better vehicle for her.

Christmasland. I don’t know where to begin with this dreary, suffocating tale which actually does have it all: irredeemable writing, unforgivable acting and terrible, soulless direction. The ideas and concepts in this story of a woman falling in love again with the Christmas village she has inherited from her grandmother are half formed, the acting dreary and the lack of plot tension frustrating. If you like staring wallpaper for 90 minutes, this is the film for you.

Christmas Break-In – actually I’m in no position to review this, since I managed the first 4 minutes and then couldn’t carry on. But, that’s sort of a review, right?

I’m sure there are others we’ve watched that I’ve missed… but… enjoy!

Parasite: Is It Any Good? – Review – Some Spoilers

Parasite, the Academy Award Winning movie has been a game-changer in Hollywood, which sees tinseltown’s establishment placing foreign language films on the same equal footing with English language works. To say this is a revolution in the way the city of dreams sees its place in an expanded and globalised world is a truism. But is the movie any good?

The answer has to be, of course, yes. But it is also not a flawless masterpiece and it certainly won’t appeal to all tastes. To my eyes, the opening hour of the film is slow as it sets up the set of relationships between the wealthy members of the Park family, and the carpet-bagging wannabe Kim family who at first just want enough money to eat and pay for their mobile phones, but by half way through have grand dreams of owning the luxurious modernist pad their hoodwinked employees inhabit.

The Kim Family in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
From left, Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam.

The film is billed as a black comedy thriller, and that in itself has a few problems. Black comedy, in my experience, often means comedy where there aren’t very many laughs, but more a twist of schadenfreude. And this movie stays true to that maxim. The travails and hopes of the Kim family in trying to climb the social ladder are neither particularly thrilling nor are they particular funny. One sees them do what they do, and there are occasional moments at which one thinks – well, that was clever of them, or that was mean of them – but judging by the silence of the cinema I sat in, not many others found much humour during the film’s rather long, slow first hour. There were, however, quite a lot of phone screens lighting up as people checked the time.

The second act of the movie becomes suddenly a lot crueller and more interesting, with a dark secret uncovered, and yes, it has some unpleasant humour in it and some genuine tension and violent comedy-ish moments. But what happened here for me was the unpleasantness each character shows to the others began to disengage me from them. I felt no emotional investment in anything going on.

It is quite possible this is deliberate. There is a discussion in the movie which talks about how wealthy people are made likeable by money. So, of course we aren’t going to like the poor characters. But this seems a rather trite and literalist take on the script’s meaning, which is a comment on the deep inequalities in society, and how people live in their own tiny worlds unaware of those around them, selfish and self-centred.

And that message, really, is the problem for me with this movie. Everyone is selfish. There’s no one to like.

By the time the ending comes with one of the characters deliberately incarcerating themselves and trying desperately to communicate with the outside world in the most preposterous of ways, when they could at any moment just walk out from their prison, I had lost faith in the movie’s vision and message. The director, having set up a strongly realist scenario, had decided to jump paradigms into symbolism. At no way, on a realist reading, does the ending work. It is psychologically untrue, and actually rather insulting to the audience, after they have invested this time in the film to receive such a poor pay-off.

For me, on that level, the film is interesting but unsatisfying. It gives some deep insights into life in South Korea and its class system, it is beautifully acted and stunningly shot – but in the end, it is trickery, and one is reminded of that by its preposterous denouement.

When it finished, I was glad it was over.

3/5

Birds of Prey Review: Harley Quinn’s Mythic Journey

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn transforms from Joker’s love interest to self-realised Loki-style spreader of upheaval and mischief. And it’s one hell of a ride all the way.

From the Golden Age onward, with a few notable exceptions (eg Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy), female comic book characters have too often suffered from being less powerful copies of male originals.

Supergirl (actually the older cousin of Superman) was made younger than Kal-El by a freak of Einsteinian relativity. Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, Batgirl and many others appeared to be created with little originality as cheap enticements to a female readership, or to titillate the boys – or both.

Harley Quinn is in a similar position. Her origin story – she was the Joker’s psychiatrist who fell for him and turned to evil – is an echo of the old stereotype that women are driven by emotions to do bad things at the behest of males – a narrative as ancient as Eve and the Serpent. She’s all too easy to view as the impish, psychotic diminutive version of Mr J.

So, the question is, in a comic book world now burgeoning with fully-realised, powerful female characters, how does Harley Quinn claim an identity for herself away from associations with the Joker?

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) deals with that problem head on. The original title, which has been shortened in theatres to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is far more accurate because at its heart, this movie is about freedom and self discovery.

Its celebration of breaking out from societal constraint is a subversive, radical, deviant message for our times. Oh. And it rocks, too.

It’s also given an original setting. Though tales of slave revolt are nothing new, this one is given a fresh comic book context, when a group of women rebel against the dominance of their various male overlords.

For the journey to begin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has to sink to rock bottom, enduring post-break-up grief over splitting with her mentor and tormentor the Joker. She’s a complete mess, living on the borrowed fear the Joker instils in the hoodlums of Gotham.

She expresses her fucked-up, emotionally dependent state to Black Canary, another woman under a man’s thumb:

“You know what a Harlequin is? A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master, and no-one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”

And so her journey of self-actualisation begins, with a grandiose and potentially suicidal declaration of independence.

The scrapes that follow stem directly from her escaping the Joker’s protective orbit. Because an awful lot of people have a truckload of grievances with Harlene Quinzel they’ve been too afraid to act on.

In the movie’s early stages, a drunk, grieving and fucked-up Quinn is at times vulnerable and so out of control she’s in danger of being raped or horribly murdered – all because she’s now a woman on her own.

“It’s a man’s world,” Black Canary pointedly sings. In that masculine violent hoodlum’s world, she needs to create a space of her own – and it’s not going to be a tiny apartment above a cheap takeaway for long.

Quinn isn’t alone on her journey. Finding her story echoed by each of the main characters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she observes: “…turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Nor is she the only person seeking it in the world, either.

Just like Eve in the Genesis myth, she is the cause of everything that follows from her first act of rebellion against male domination. Unlike Eve, in this story, there’s no-one to judge her nor anyone strong enough to punish her. She acts according to her own lights. Beyond good and evil, she is pure self-serving elemental force. She’s what English Romantic poet William Blake once said Satan stood for – energy.

Harley Quinn is a trickster figure, the Loki of Norse mythology (not the Marvel one), who MAKES THINGS HAPPEN. She’s the driving motor at the movie’s centre, while all the other main characters are fellow travellers, each on journeys of self-realisation.

As with all great tricksters, she’s lucky and cunning in equal measure. And just like Loki, she operates by her own code outside of conventional morality .

Harley Quinn is most definitely not one of the good guys. She is a fighter and a survivor. By the end, she finds her own way by her own rules – no matter how impermanent and nebulous those rules may be. She has her own inner life, and is no longer “Pudding’s” (the Joker’s) distorted reflection.

Harley Quinn is, in many ways, any ambitious person seeking to create their identity in the world. It’s just that she also happens to be a devious, brilliant, witty, funny, remorselessly violent, scatterbrained and totally nuts supervillain.

That’s why she’s able to declare at the end:

“I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you, not Mr J, because I’m Harley freaking Quinn.”

That’s her hero’s journey. What a journey it is. And it’s worth following all the way to its explosive conclusion.

Birds of Prey is at the front line of the culture war, and it’s a crying shame.

The culture war is here again, just as it always is when a female-centred movie appears on the scene.

From some predictable quarters, criticism of the movie has been damning, with a kind of self-satisfied “told you so” coming out of the more insecure, scared and genuinely obnoxious parts of the anti-woman breeding pits of the internet, where some of its least sanitary keyboardistas moulder in their own (unsurprising) celibacy.

Some hostile reviews have basically ballached that movies that don’t include men in their rightful places as kings of a universe in which scantily-clad females prepare themselves for mating in a lardaceous teenager’s fantasy harem are somehow a Marxist attack on Western culture. A quick check of their posting times shows a whole raft of this type of negative review came out before or just as the film was released. No gender agenda here, then.

I do have to wonder what goes on in the minds of fellow males so bereft of self-knowledge and with such fragile egos that they can’t accept a movie in which women are the main drivers of the action.

A search down the twitter feed of many critics, and of their blogs, reveals that (surprise, surprise) many of these same voices attacked previous female-centred movies with exactly the same arguments. It is instructive to see how many now critiquing Birds of Prey by saying it doesn’t have the integrity of Captain Marvel (whom some now hold up as a kind of ideal female-led movie), were in fact dissing the very same Captain Marvel at exactly this period in its release and had predicted failure because the lead was a woman. It’s almost like you’d think they wanted female-led movies to fail or something? Shurrrrly not?!?!

(For those who can’t read this:
“She doesn’t change, grow, or develop… She’s still the same destructive, immature, selfish arsehole she was at the beginning…” – – yep, sounds like a feminist all right.
The replies are equally as insightful.)

Some more philosophical critics attempt to draw a deeper moral lesson with the slogan “get woke, go broke” from any movies that don’t chime with their limited world view. (Remember, that’s a world view in which women submit to their every whim while looking like porn pros with spray-on clothes about to do a spring break shoot.)

No Kyle, the bat is to beat people with, not beat off to.

The moral such critics want to extrapolate is that “woke” movies won’t make money because that is not what the public want. Similar critics also described Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as “woke” but then had to change their minds after their success. Which means, obviously, only a weak box office is an indicator of “wokeness”, not the other way round. Such inverted logic is like saying “trees being uprooted causes hurricanes.” Viewed like that, it’s quite amazing how accurate prediction of past events can be.

It’s true BoP has underperformed* – but it’s got nothing to do with the “wokeness” or otherwise of the movie. It is to do with not getting the marketing, messaging and even title of the movie right, rather than people the world over suddenly hating powerful women-led films that don’t revolve around men, as incels would have us believe. Manboys are just wonderfully sensitive to having their world view questioned, it seems, and basically get very bitchy and whiny when presented with something that does exactly that.

Anyway, with the incels dismissed, we then have supposedly pro-BoP lunacy.

BoP-heads are so enamoured of the movie, so the narrative goes, they are attacking its next rival, Sonic the Hedgehog with complaints of blasphemy and swearing (as if the R-rated BoP doesn’t salt itself with “fuck” all the way through) and advising families to ditch the digital woodpig for the blonde psycho with a mallet (as if that’s going to happen).

And this is where the twitterverse gets weirder. Because Sonic the Hedgehog is not actually out on full theatrical release in the US until 14th February, which means there’s been a whole week of people tweeting how they stormed out of it to watch Birds of Prey… and you figure that one out.

It’s enough to make you paranoid. Are we in the midst of social media psy-ops in which the spreading of contradictory information is designed to destabilise an entire generation of feminists and comic book nerds? Is some nefarious criminal hoping that the lack of narrative will thus become its own narrative of chaos that will bring down the West? Mwahahahaha!

It’s like a comic book.

A closer look at some of these hardcore BoP-stan profiles reveals a definite lack of right-on politics, or that they are such extreme SJWs they must be parody accounts pretending to be “woke” in order to troll… Maybe… And if not, they should be. I mean they are right out there on the fringes of the known universe, with their incel counterparts.

And so, what’s actually going on? Chaos reigns is one answer – which would suit Harley Quinn down to the ground. As to who is posting what, really? Who knows… Because by this point there is no grown-up debate to be had about what went wrong. The twitterverse is having a fit. Birds of Prey has become the kickaround for anyone in the culture war with an axe to grind, and this point right here is where it all descends into madness about who the fuck is tweeting about what and why…

Enough!

My advice to anyone seeing all this twitter crap is, unsee it, now.

Because it’s a crying shame. The movie is not anti-men, or about to collapse the world order in some cataclysmic femocalypse as some would have you believe. (I’m not sure a movie can do that anyway. It’s just a movie.) Nope. Birds of Prey is massive fun from explosive beginning to nutcracking end.

So, if you’re looking for a fun night out and you aren’t in that disproportionately vociferous minority of guys terrified of the women who don’t prostrate themselves before their throbbing maleness, give Birds of Prey a whirl. And if you’re a woman undecided – well, really – what’s to lose? The set design is brilliant, the cinematography pops with vibrant colours and the comedy really works.

That, for me, was the big surprise. It’s a comedy – a violent, raucous comedy about people standing up for themselves after being abused and bullied. That’s a universal message, and just because it happens to be women doing it this time round doesn’t mean it’s the end of the universe, or that us guys’ dicks will fall off when we step into the cinema or there won’t be movies with men as main characters ever again. Honestly, the fragile nature of psychologically-stunted boys who demand the world must be a kind of fantasy porn game in which they are treated with the same respect as the engorged member of Conan the Barbarian, is sad to behold.

Birds of Prey is a violent, joyous funny, movie with shades of the old 1960s camp Batman movie about it. What’s not to like?

Get out there and enjoy it.

*********

*Since writing this piece, I have reviewed the figures for Birds of Prey. As they stand at the end of the second weekend, it looks like word is spreading about what a good film it is.

US take now stands at $61.673m+, while the international take is currently $83.6m, making a global Box Office of $145m+.

These figures mean the whole “flop” narrative is going to have to be challenged. It’s an R-rated movie with a groundbreaking ensemble and none of the “big” characters such as Joker and Wonder Woman, or huge CGI budgets that led to wins for Aquaman and Black Panther.

This is a respectable take as we start Week 2. So, even the assertion that it has failed is wrong. I bought into that, like most others did.

The power of social media, eh?

Why does Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet?

WARNING: SPOILERS.

I watched Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the cinema last night. It was great. Some great dancing to Prokofiev’s score.

And yet, you do have to ask the question, when does something stop being an “interpretation” or “adaptation” and just become a new thing?

That’s certainly a valid question for this piece. It is not the classic reviewers’ phrase “a stark reimagining” of the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Shakespeare tale, and here is why:

This show is set in a kind of asylum for ill-behaved children.

There was no clear sense of “two houses divided”, of rival Montagus and Capulets.

Tybalt was a prison guard who continually rapes Juliet before Romeo turns up.

The rape of Juliet is irrelevant to the unwinding of the story.

Juliet and Romeo strangle Tybalt to death.

The tragedy that comes from the trick of fake suicide and is followed by a double suicide is at the very heart of the story. It was replaced by manslaughter and a remorseful suicide.

So, weighed up, the whole thing was NOTHING AT ALL to do with Romeo and Juliet.

It was more like the show should have been called:

“Matthew Bourne’s troupe dance to the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but have nothing to do with the story.”

But I guess that is less catchy.

The Last Jedi – Reviewed by a Star Wars sceptic

Star Wars, The Last Jedi

I’m going to make a confession. I really don’t like Star Wars.

It’s been a complicated relationship. When I first heard of Star Wars, I loved the sound of it. At school, I got swept along swapping the Star Wars bubble gum cards, I devoured the novel adaptation and collected the comics. I was seriously into Star Wars. I loved the idea of it.

But going to the cinema wasn’t something our family did very often, and I have to confess that during all the Star Wars mania that I joined in, I never once went to see it at the movies.

So, when it premiered on BBC tv in the early ’80s, I was intrigued. I really wanted to see what I hadn’t seen when I was a kid. Sadly, I had grown up, and the film was… well… boring. It was plagued with long, slow establishing scenes, by unsophisticated dialogue, and by jumping between story arcs in a mechanical way that felt like it was simply story-telling by numbers. Basically, the Star Wars in my imagination was better than the one on the small screen that Christmas. What a let-down!

I did watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema, and I liked it – though I’d already read the novelisation by the time I saw it, and the book was better… and then came the third one, whose name I’ve forgotten. The one with Jabba. And by then, I’d lost interest.

The thing that I felt let the series down was muppets. Yoda was a muppet, the stupid jazz band at the Mos Eisley canteen were (sort of) muppets, bits I saw of that third (yes, I know, sixth) movie had muppets. And boy, did I hate Yoda. Everything about him from his stupid Fozzy Bear voice and Kermit face, to his bad grammar and his faux spiritual insights made my blood boil.

Yet, like a massochist, when Phantom Menace came out, I thought, I’ll give it a shot. It’s a new take on the old series – a fresh start. Maybe things will be better.

That’s when I encountered Jar Jar Binks. Oh, boy. We’d gone beyond muppets to racial stereotypes in CGI. I squirmed in embarrassment at the cinema. I skipped a couple, catching them later online. Pretty much the same dull storytelling. I caught up with that third (sixth) one whose name I’ve forgotten – the Jabba one – and noticed how there wasn’t really a story. And as for the terribly portrayed dilemma Darth Vader has in finally saving Luke – that just took FOREVER to unwind. Man. The series was a no-hoper. Lame.

Yet, I still hoped. I hoped that Lucasfilms would turn out something smarter than it was doing at the moment – which was creating kids’ space operas.

So I continued to watch the films, like a spectator watching a car crash through the gaps in his fingers.

Rogue One was better, I thought, though still with its problems. The Force Awakens not great, and basically a re-run of the first one (the fourth one – that numbering issue also pisses me off).

And so, like a penitent going to church to confess his sins, I went to watch The Last Jedi – once again expecting to be disappointed, but somehow, hoping against hope that this movie would hit the right bases to make me love it.

And, despite all my scepticism, it did it! This movie actually worked. The storyline is tight, the arcs within it layered, with plenty of different emotional truths. It even manages to look at the life behind the continual warfare between Rebels and Empire / First Order to those who profit from it. It was more mature than I expected, and the characters felt real – conflicted, smart.

I’m not going to go into detail and give spoilers – but I’m going to say, if this jaded, anti-Star Wars viewer would be happy to watch it again, then the show is doing something right. Great work. This movie is a recommend.

Even despite the muppet.

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.