DC tries to give Harley Quinn a second shot at a decent film along with a team of female anti-heroes.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has been dumped by the Joker (Technically Jared Leto) and is setting out on her own. Unfortunately, during the process of moving on, she earns the ire of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the supervillain and mob-boss known as the Black Mask. Sionis is being investigated by Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who also starts chasing Quinn. Montoya, Harley, singer/asskicker Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and assassin Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) all get caught up in a plot involving Sionis and a young girl named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
I hated Suicide Squad. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I was angry that I had been suckered by the trailers into thinking it was going to be a good movie, even though I should have known from the earlier trailers that it was never going to work out. The way that characters were introduced, the generic plotlines, the constant desire to be “edgy” but never actually being edgy, all of that just made me hate that film. I even really didn’t like Margot Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn, but I don’t think it had to do with Robbie’s performance. The writing was just awful.
Unlike that movie’s over-the-top promotion, I almost didn’t realize this movie came out. The advertising focused so heavily on “the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn” over the Birds of Prey that, after Suicide Squad, I really wasn’t that interested in this movie. However, after hearing a few people praise the movie, I gave it a shot, and somehow this movie does almost everything Suicide Squad did, but does it mostly correctly. The writing is still bad, but it’s not AS bad and the characters and directing manage to mostly salvage it.
One of the biggest things about the movie is that it’s narrated by Harley Quinn who stylizes most of the narration, captions, and flashbacks. The first thing this does is actually justify the stylized character screens that were present throughout Suicide Squad, where the introductions were being done by Amanda Waller, a person who would never try to be that cutesy. Also, Waller’s explanations are to other people, whereas Harley is just crazy enough to talk to the imaginary audience. Harley breaking the fourth wall can be a bit over-the-top at times, but for the most part Robbie makes it charming. I’ll admit that the opening 10-15 minutes weren’t great, but once Harley gets a cheese sandwich, it starts to find its feet. In fairness, the sandwich was the emotional center of the movie. Still, having a good point of view to follow actually erases quite a few of the mistakes of its predecessor.
It also helps that the character introductions are less “blatant narration” and more “scene depicting, through their actions, what kind of people they are.” I admit that Huntress’s backstory is way more narrated, but she’s so damned fun that I will overlook it. Moreover, the characters aren’t all introduced to us en masse, instead, they are explained when they enter the story. It feels less forced and the movie even admits that when the team finally comes together, they’re not really a team at that point, they’re just four women and a kid who have to work together out of necessity. Given their varied personalities and predilections, that’s really the only way they could have ever agreed to cooperate.
The characters are very different from their comic counterparts in a lot of ways, but it never annoyed me. Black Canary spends much of the movie refusing a call to heroism because her mother was killed being a superhero. Huntress was raised with a desire to kill her family’s murderers, but this has made her completely insecure and socially awkward. Rene Montoya, as played by Rosie Perez – Actually, I’m going to stop here and just give a round of applause to Rosie Perez for A) playing an action movie character over 50, B) getting work as a leading woman over 40 in a big budget film, and C) selling a character who admits to being a cliche half the time. Seriously, just… good job, Rosie. Anyway, Rene Montoya, as played by Rosie Perez, is a grizzled veteran who has been screwed over by the system repeatedly, a stark contrast to the naive rookie that the character was originally. Cassandra Cain is an in-name-only character, who bears no resemblance to the mute super martial artist of the comics.
Despite all of the changes, they just serve to drive home that this “team” really has nothing in common. Canary fights because she’s got just too much hero in her to let Sionis capture a girl, Harley does it because she likes Cassandra and because Sionis is going to kill her, Montoya believes in stopping Sionis even if the rest of the department doesn’t support her, and Huntress is just after vengeance. We have a vigilante, a self-serving antihero, a cop, and an assassin, and it somehow comes together organically for the final major action set piece.
Actually, I really liked all of the action sequences in this film. They vary a lot and many of them capture the fun slapstick element of violence that the John Wick films did well. I will admit that some of the gore is a bit more than I was expecting and, honestly, maybe more than the film needed, but they’re overall solid.
I also loved Ewan McGregor’s performance as Roman Sionis. He perfectly nails a combination of psychopath and insecure over-compensating douche. He has no emotional strength and whines constantly, but due to his wealth and influence can get away with anything, so he just moves straight to violence as a response. He seems almost unbelievable as a human being, except that YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE MET THIS GUY ON THE INTERNET. It’s also amazing that he is utterly incapable of doing almost anything on his own, but is still threatening to everyone. It helps that his chief henchman, Zsasz (Chris Messina), is a grade-A serial killer, but still, McGregor sells that Sionis can be simultaneously weak and yet overwhelming.
Overall, I genuinely liked this film. I don’t know why it’s failing at the box office aside from the fact that it felt like a tacked-on sequel to a terrible movie, which it absolutely is not. I mean, it’s poorly written, but still better than Aquaman. I wonder if there’s a reason a female superteam movie with some admitted flaws would have 1/10th the box office of Jason Momoa in spandex, despite getting better critical and audience reviews? Dang it, Drogo…
I take on the task of looking at three takes on the same idea over 3 generations.
*Update* I have reconsidered these films now and I would like to say the following: The Carpenter film will literally always win. It’s a masterpiece. However, I do admit that the 2011 film has a lot more going for it than I thought the first time.
Each of these movies is an adaptation of the story “Who Goes There?” from 1938.
The general plotline of the films is that an Antarctic, or Arctic, research station finds a frozen alien spacecraft. The alien is revealed to be a threat to the world, because it consumes life forms and then propagates itself at a rapid pace, sewing a large amount of distrust among all of the humans. Everything else is going to be part of the compare and contrast.
This is the conclusion of my 13 reviews of Halloween. Four of the reviews were classic movies, four of them were reader requests, and four of them were independent movies/lesser seen films. This review has all three of those, but they’re all adaptations of the same story. This review originally ended up being over 3500 words. I’ve edited it heavily in order to get it to a reasonable length for a blog post. Maybe one day I’ll post the full thing, but… well, due to my own stupidity, I didn’t save a copy of the full review, I just cut it down. Long story short, this is a long story, short.
A little background here:
The Thing from Another World was made in 1951 by Christian Nyby, who really was just an editor throughout most of his career. It was in black-and-white and was produced by Howard Hawks’ studio, the makers of Scarface and The Big Sleep. It was a low-budget sci-fi horror film that was designed mostly to capitalize on the anti-scientific-exploration mentality that was prevalent after the world realized that “oh hey, atomic bombs are bad now that Russia has them” as well as the growing threat of “communism.” It was a big hit both commercially and critically, doing better than more well-known films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s still considered a classic monster movie and holds up better than most movies from 1951.
The Thing is a movie made by the legendary John Carpenter in 1982. It could represent any number of potential social issues, because the central focus is that anyone could secretly be an alien and you’d never notice. That said, it could represent absolutely nothing and still just be a great horror film. The Thing was a critical flop of epic proportions, with most of the people saying it was too bleak and too slow to be a decent film. However, as time passed, the film was reconsidered by most audiences, where it went from being one of the most hated films of all time to one of the most celebrated films. It stands today as one of the best examples of practical effects in the 1980s and of suspense in films. The fact that it is so dark and depressing, what made people hate it when it came out, is now what sets it apart from other horror films. It’s just a masterpiece through and through.
The Thing is a prequel to the 1982 movie that was made in 2011 because you can always cash in on nostalgia. While the Carpenter film depended heavily on practical effects, the 2011 movie tried to replace it with CGI. Sadly, the CGI did not improve the film. While the Carpenter film has a slow pace to increase the paranoia and uncertainty of the audience and the characters, this version seems to go slow solely because the Carpenter version did. It also suffered because the end of the film had to correspond with the observations of the location from the Carpenter version. Ultimately, it wasn’t very successful either critically or commercially.
The big constants in every version are the alien, the setting, the team, and the paranoia. I’d originally intended to go through each, pick a winner and a loser in each category, and then do an overall analysis to determine the best movie. The problem was that I immediately knew that the one done by John Carpenter was going to win every category. It’s one of the best horror films ever made and one of my favorite movies, so… yeah, that one is going to win literally everything. Instead, I’m just going to explain WHY it wins.
1) The Alien
The alien is a global threat. In The Thing From Another World, the creature feeds on blood and is plant-based. It’s blood subsequently grows other plants, which will eventually feed on more blood. In this way, if it were to get out of the tundra, it would cause carnivorous plants to take over the world. In the 1982 The Thing and its 2011 prequel of the same name, the alien consumes living matter and can absorb the memories of anyone it eats, allowing it to perfectly duplicate its victims. After it consumes enough mass, it can duplicate itself into another organism, making any number of itself until it could eventually consume everyone on Earth without anyone even knowing it.
If it comes down to why The Thing wins here, it’s a combination of, ahem, things. First, the alien in the older movie, while it is played by the legendary James Arness, is nowhere near as scary. It’s also nowhere near as focal to the threat of the film. It basically shows up, gets injured, drives a guy insane, then dies in an incredibly stupid trap. It’s still fairly lethal, but much easier to deal with, due to it not propagating on its own. Also, it’s extremely humanoid, which removes some level of intimidation.
Meanwhile the Carpenter alien is a nightmare. It not only infiltrates with ease, but quickly consumes and spreads itself at such a fast pace that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure who is human and who isn’t. Now, you may point out that this is the same monster from the prequel, and that’s technically true, but A) it’s inherently not original, B) the creature is nowhere near as creative in its killing, and C) the digital special effects for it just don’t match up to the practical effects of the Carpenter film. *Update* Admittedly, CGI did allow for a lot of shots that couldn’t be done practically, but Rob Bottin and special-effects legend Stan Winston really came up with some disturbing shots for the Carpenter version.
2) The Setting
Every version of the movie takes place in a frozen wasteland. This is essential to the story, because it is the only reason why the creature doesn’t immediately start taking over the world.
In The Thing From Another World, the setting is the North Pole, which is unique among the movies in the sense that it’s on the exact opposite side of the world, but… how the hell would you know? I mean, it’s just a snowy desert. However, unlike the other two movies, the setting is much more tied in with the military. It’s ostensibly an arctic research base, but it is run by the air force and staffed by airmen. The base also is designed to be visited more often, keeping the feeling of isolation at a much lower level than the other films. To be fair, the movie is supposed to be more of a monster epic, as opposed to a psychological thriller, so the lack of isolation isn’t as noticeable.
The 2011 version takes place at the set which the cast of the 1982 film briefly visit, that of a Norwegian research station called “Thule,” an ancient term for the border of the world (solid reference there, guys). Similar to the 1951 movie, though, the fact that people keep coming and going from the station removes some of the elements of isolation compared to the Carpenter version. The station is also designed for more clinical research, which makes it seem more pristine and somewhat unloved. However, the movie does include the inside of the alien ship, which… actually is kind of a disappointment. The ship looks similar to most spaceships from alien movies, with hallways designed to accommodate humanoid inhabitants. This is despite the fact that the alien that inhabits it is a shapeshifter who wouldn’t need such regular dimensions. It still looks cool, but not as cool as it could be. Yes, we technically see part of it in the original, but there was a lot of room to expand on this in inventive ways that I think didn’t happen.
Then there’s the original. The people staffing the American research station aren’t scientists, they’re blue collar workers. They wreck stuff. They put their feet on stuff. You really believe this is the kind of place where a bunch of guys get stuck together for months at a time. But mostly, it drives home that this is the kind of place that is separated from the rest of the world. They can barely go outside for any amount of time, so the inside is kind of dirty and crowded and lived in. The shots of the landscape just show whiteness and emptiness everywhere; it’s perfectly bleak and isolated.
3) The Team
This is probably the category in which each of the movies is the most fundamentally different. It’s a little unfair that John Carpenter had Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and Donald Moffat, although the 2011 film did have Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. The Thing from Another World’s biggest star was James Arness as the monster, and he had only just started his career at that point.
However, it’s not just the performances and the caliber of actors that set the John Carpenter film apart. It’s the kind of people being portrayed. In The Thing from Another World, most of the cast are either military or scientists. A lot of them don’t know each other and thus, any distrust between them is kind of easy to create. Several of the people already have inherent issues, because the scientists don’t like the military and vice versa. None of the characters are particularly memorable aside from Carrington (Robert Cornwaite), a scientist who becomes obsessed with the alien. In the 2011 Thing, the team is composed almost entirely of scientists who were working at the Norwegian Antarctic research station. They have history together, but they trade out fairly frequently. They’re also always rational about the situation, reacting to it more analytically than would maybe be natural. Then, there’s the Carpenter version.
The 1982 The Thing features a team of blue collar workers who have all been stuck together for a long time. They’re close, almost to a familial point, but they’re not a pleasant family because they keep getting stuck together for such long periods of time. They have a level of “f*ck off* that they wear on their sleeves. Additionally, these are mostly normal humans who frequently react with emotional outbursts. One of my favorite scenes in film is when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), gets mad at losing to the chess computer on site and pours scotch into it, destroying it. It’s such a perfect representation of the kind of people who are at this station, and they’re so much more relatable to the viewer than teams of scientists or military personnel. By making the characters more normal, it makes the horror of their situation more understandable to the viewer and more powerful.
4) The Paranoia
Since this is the core theme of the original story, each of the versions has tried to convey it with varying levels of success.
In the black-and-white film, the paranoia comes from the fact that the monster can propagate an entire army via the seed pods on its body and that it can convince people to follow it based solely on its superior genetics. It was apparently seen as a metaphor for Communism in the McCarthy era. The monster, while humanoid, drains its victims and grows new emotionless soldiers to replace them. I don’t think it’s a great metaphor, but then again I have the benefit of knowing how the Soviet Union panned out so far. Ultimately, while everyone is afraid of the threat of the monster, it still doesn’t give the same level of “trust no one” as the other films.
In Carpenter’s film and the re-make, the paranoia is because you actually can’t trust anyone. Moreover, in the 1982 film, the audience is in the same boat as the characters. We see a character get eaten and absorbed by the thing, but only in shadow, and we never get any confirmation who that character was. That’s the point, though: Anyone could be the Thing and you’d never know. Now, the creature appears fairly early on in the movie and nobody knows that it is an alien at first because it appears as a sled dog. That means, in retrospect, it could potentially have killed and assimilated anyone, because no one was even aware of the threat. Ergo, anyone can be the monster. Trust no one.
The prequel has a similar premise, because it’s ostensibly the same monster, but it has two major flaws. First, it takes almost an hour to get the thing into the movie and we know that it wasn’t there before. In other words, everything we’ve seen before then had to involve only humans, so we can’t read anything into those actions. Also, the people are aware of the Thing and its powers almost immediately, meaning that while the paranoia is palpable, it goes from 0 to 60 in about 2 scenes, rather than the slow build of Carpenter’s film.
So the winner is: Carpenter’s film. I literally said that it would at the beginning. There was never a question. However, I like all of these movies, although I admit that the 2011 prequel feels mostly unnecessary. *Update* It does have some good performances and a few added locations that at least expand the story a bit. The Howard Hawks film is a great monster movie that, while definitely dated, still can keep your interest and the prequel, while flawed and derivative, still does an amazing job of keeping the continuity of the previous film. However, Carpenter’s movie is not just one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Rather than being a metaphor for a particular idea like Communism, Carpenter managed to make a film about one of the most perpetually disconcerting inherent aspects of human consciousness: You will never, ever, truly know another human being. Now, you can have people you are close to, people you are completely honest with, or people you think you can understand, but you will never be positive that they’re that way with you. They could always be hiding something or, more likely, they could just change in a way that isn’t reflected physically. In this movie, Carpenter plays upon one of the most basic issues in the human experience and points out that, when we are forced to confront that fact, we immediately start turning on each other. It’s truly a bleak outlook that most movies wouldn’t even try to take on.
Happy Halloween, my readers. Regular schedule will come back in November, with probably a few hiccups due to plans.
So, per Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and Metacritic and every other rating thing I can find, this is the lowest rated of the movies Edgar Wright directed (granted, it’s still favorably rated). There are a couple of reasons for this: It’s got a lot more jokes that require specific outside knowledge, it’s based on an indie comic that wasn’t even finished at the time, and it’s much more styled towards a particular culture. But, more than that, I think it’s that people didn’t know exactly how to feel about the main character.
This movie takes place in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada. However, even compared to the normal Canada, this one is particularly odd in that it obeys “video game rules.” 22-year-old bassist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen “Watch GLOW” Wong). One night, however, he sees Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblade through his dreams before meeting her in real life. He starts dating her, but doesn’t break up with Knives.
When Scott plays at the Battle of the Bands with his band Sex Bob-Omb (Members Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill)), he is attacked by Ramona’s ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who tells him that, in order to date Ramona, he has to defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes. Scott is revealed to be an amazing fighter who ends up defeating Patel. Scott finally breaks up with Knives, but she blames Ramona and vows vengeance. Scott then tricks her second evil ex, Lucas Lee (Chris “You know who I am” Evans) into defeating himself, defeats her third ex, Todd Ingram (Brandon “You know who I am, but a little less” Routh) by tricking him into drinking cream which leads the Vegan Police (Clifton Collins, Jr. and Thomas Jane) to remove his “vegan powers,” and defeats her fourth evil ex, Roxy (or Roxie) Richter (Mae “Her?” Whitman) mildly pornographically.
Scott and Ramona have a fight, leading her to dump him. At the next Battle of the Bands, however, Scott and Sex Bob-Omb are pitted against Ramon’s fifth and sixth exes Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito), who they defeat, earning Scott an extra life. It’s then revealed that the Battle was sponsored by Ramona’s seventh ex, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who she has now gotten back with. Scott quits the band when they sign with Gideon.
After a pep-talk (consisting of “finish him”) from his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), Scott resolves to win Ramona back and heads to the Chaos Theater, where Gideon and the band (now with Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) are. Scott challenges Gideon but is defeated. He then uses his extra life to try again, this time being honest and mature about everything he’s done, finally defeating Gideon. He’s then confronted by Nega-Scott, who ends up being a nice guy. Ramona starts to leave, but, with prompting from Knives, Scott goes with her, walking into a doorway to somewhere new.
Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy or Baby Driver, this movie was actually based on an existing property, the excellent Scott Pilgrim comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Because of that, a lot of the plot elements were kind of locked in, although they were adapted to film by Wright and Michael Bacall (21 Jump Street). A big thing is that the comic series wasn’t over at the time the movie was being made, so they had options as to how to end it. Unfortunately, they picked an ending, then found out that they’d picked the opposite of the comics and also the one that the audience didn’t like, so they reversed themselves. In the alternate ending, Scott actually picks Knives, which is weird because that’s basically undoing a lot of the growth of the film.
Now, again, this is the lowest rated film by Edgar Wright, and the main thing I think people don’t like about this movie is that Scott Pilgrim is not a great guy. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the last volume of the comic series, which hadn’t come out yet. It’s a bit more explicit there, where it’s pointed out that much of the comic is just from Scott’s viewpoint and accepting the objective truth of what he’s done to people in the past allows him to finally realize that he’s a dick. In this movie, the realization isn’t as pronounced and is basically accomplished as part of a montage, which kind of hurts our appreciation of his growth.
It’s not really abnormal to have a protagonist who’s a bad person, tons of movies have done it, but it’s the kind of bad person that Scott is. Scott’s really just kind of a selfish asshole who doesn’t realize it. He dated Kim and treated her so badly that during the movie, she doesn’t even break her gaze most of the time. She constantly insults him and when he claims to be offended, she seems skeptical that he’s even capable of caring what she thinks… which he usually ignores and moves on.
He doesn’t have a job, he mooches off of Wallace, he doesn’t have any aspirations, he dates a high-schooler despite being 22, and he cheats on her the minute he finds someone else. Unlike Shaun from Shaun of the Dead or Gary King from The World’s End, Scott doesn’t really have that many redeeming qualities. He’s cowardly, he’s not particularly loyal to his friends or his band, he’s not even that funny. You’re just not supposed to like him. At the end of the movie, we even meet “NegaScott,” who is revealed to be, if anything, slightly nicer than regular Scott, meaning Scott is actually the evil twin. But, since he’s played as being somewhat adorable, a great bassist and fighter, and is the protagonist, you find yourself naturally kind of wanting to like him, so the movie is kind of confusing your feelings. I think that turned a lot of people off.
The point of Scott’s journey isn’t actually to be a better person in the heroic cycle where he ends up completely different and changed by the journey at the end. Scott’s story is just him realizing that he needs to change and accepting that he isn’t the awesome person he thinks he is.
Meanwhile, Ramona is portrayed pretty straightforwardly. She’s not a great person either, but she’s more honest about it and doesn’t like it. She even tries to keep out of other people’s lives to spare them her the trouble of dealing with her. However, she’s not much braver than Scott, trying to run or hide from any issue, symbolized by her ever-changing hair.
Since I’m apparently doing characters, I will have to pause and say that I think this is among the best supporting casts ever placed in a film. Yes, most of them seem like exaggerated caricatures, but it’s a video game world inside a comic book, that’s actually nailing it. I particularly love Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, who manages to be both supportive and also undercut Scott’s bad habits constantly. The villains also carry sufficient weight, particularly given that most of them are only on film for a few minutes.
Now, to get into the most impressive part of the movie, the style. Since Wright was following the comic, he didn’t get as much control over the plot and characters, but more than made up for it in his choices of music, costume, and settings. The amount of effort put forth in the film is ridiculous, with almost every shot having some sort of secondary meaning.
The biggest one is probably the style of the villains. Each one is given elements that reflect what number they are in the league. Matthew Patel appears to only have one eye due to his hairstyle and has one chevron on his shoulder. Lucas Lee uses stunt doubles and has a 2 tattooed on his neck. Todd wears a 3 on his shirt and loses due to his third strike violation of Vegan Law. Roxie fights Scott in a club called “4” and is defeated by “foreplay.” The Katayanagi twins have an amp that goes to 11 (5+6). Gideon’s fight is filled with sevens. In contrast, Scott wears a shirt saying “zero,” drinks Coke Zero, and draws zeroes when he’s nervous.
The transitions in the movie are impressive, with the characters constantly shifting from scene to scene, often in one fluid motion, which makes it feel more like a comic book or a video game transition. Likewise, there are a ton of quick-change cuts that almost feel like the character just changed their equipment rather than getting dressed. Even a lot of the actions have visual cues, ranging from motion lines to outright verbal sound effects.
The music in the film is amazing, as you would expect, but the sound effects are also perfect. In a sitcom scene, they play the Seinfeld theme. In a bathroom scene, they play the Fairy Fountain theme from The Legend of Zelda series. Video game sounds are repeatedly used to punctuate actions, including the famous “KO” effect from VirtuaFighter.
Overall, I love this film. It’s got great re-watchability, it’s visually stunning, and, mostly, it’s one of the only movies that actually feels like a video game, far more than any video game movie.