Tag Archives: Cathy Yan

New Shows + Movies by Women — February 19, 2021

I’ve been able to learn and expand the scope of this feature in the first year of doing it. You might notice I’m covering a few additional services recently like MUBI, Sundance Now, and Kanopy.

However we refer to these services, get familiar with how they work. Take Kanopy, for instance. Do you have a library card or a log-in with a university? Then you probably already have Kanopy at no charge. This is because Kanopy is paid for by participating college and library systems. It provides people access to a huge library of films, with the cost already covered.

MUBI is also unique. If you see something on it that you like, you only have 30 days to watch it from its premiere on the service. MUBI is a constantly rotating curation of 30 movies. That may seem strange, but it gives the service the ability to license less-seen films, while maintaining those movies’ exclusivity to later strike a deal with a larger service.

Many services both major and niche offer free trial periods, so if you really want to see a film or series and you don’t have the service, consider just running it for a trial period. Or wait until a few things stack up on it, subscribe for a month, binge them all, and then cancel when next month rolls around.

There’s nothing wrong with that; there are services I keep constant access to and others I rotate through as needed.

When something is both on a service and still rentable individually, I also include a link to a list of where you can rent it. Keep an eye out for that – paying $3 or $4 for a digital rental is a lot less expensive than getting a service for a month just to see it.

If you don’t have to worry about these things, that is great – take a look at smaller streaming services featuring lesser-seen films and consider supporting them. (Or take a look at a certain writer’s Patreon, which helps me research and write this weekly feature and other articles.)

OK, ramble more than fully rambled, let’s get to this week’s new shows and movies by women:

NEW SERIES

The Luminaries (Starz)
showrunner Eleanor Catton

“The Luminaries” is set during New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush. In the novel by Eleanor Catton, a man travels to the South Island in order to strike it rich. Instead, he happens upon a meeting of others trying to discern a series of murders, thefts, and disappearances that involves them all.

The series is based on Catton’s novel, and she serves as showrunner and writer here. Claire McCarthy directs the entire series. McCarthy is known for Daisy Ridley-starrer “Ophelia”, a retelling of “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s perspective.

“The Luminaries” ran in New Zealand and the UK last year, and this is the first time it’s available in the U.S.

You can watch “The Luminaries” with a subscription to Starz, with new episodes of the 6-part series premiering every Sunday.

Young Rock (NBC)
showrunner Nahnatchka Khan

I’m going to be honest. I’m wary of the premise (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson looks back on his life as he runs for president in 2032; I think we’ve had enough celebrity presidents). While I like Johnson just fine, I’m not sure I was raring at the chance to see a show depicting him growing up. But then I looked up the name of the showrunner.

Nahnatchka Khan is an all-too-hidden legend in comedy television. She wrote some of the best episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle”. She’d follow this up by creating and showrunning two of the best sitcoms of the 2010s: “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” and “Fresh Off the Boat”.

I realize Dwayne Johnson is the name selling the series, but it’s Khan’s that takes it from something I would have let pass by to something I know I need to check out. Her involvement doesn’t guarantee a show will be special (she produced and wrote on “American Dad”, for instance), but it does give it a very good chance.

You can watch “Young Rock” on NBC, with new episodes premiering every Tuesday.

Tell Me Your Secrets (Amazon)
co-showrunner Harriet Warner

Emma covered up for her lover’s crimes – they just happened to be serial murder. When she’s finally released from prison on a deal to provide evidence, she’s put into witness protection in New Orleans. A grieving mother who believes Emma was involved in her daughter’s death decides to blackmail a man into tracking Emma down.

“Tell Me Your Secrets” is created by co-showrunner Harriet Warner. She’s previously written on “Call the Midwife” and consulted on “The Alienist: Angel of Darkness”.

You can watch “Tell Me Your Secrets” on Amazon with a subscription.

NEW MOVIES

Nomadland (Hulu)
directed by Chloe Zhao

A woman loses her life and savings in the Great Recession. She lives out of her van, as a nomad looking for work where it comes. The film is based on the novel by Jessica Bruder.

This is getting a lot of award buzz and earned a mountain of Golden Globes nominations. Chloe Zhao’s nomination there as Best Director is the first for any Asian woman.

Award timing gets a little confusing in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic – “Nomadland” did a one week run at a single theater in December to qualify as a 2020 film for awards purposes. It technically comes out today, Feb. 19, 2021. Thus, the awards shows consider it a 2020 movie, while it’s coming out two months into 2021 for the rest of us. I’m just glad it’s getting attention.

Zhao both writes and directs, as she did on “The Rider” and “Songs My Brother Taught Me”. She’s also in post-production on a Marvel film, “Eternals”.

You can watch “Nomadland” on Hulu with a subscription.

Dead Pigs (MUBI)
directed by Cathy Yan

There’s an unlucky pig farmer trying to make ends meet. A woman is being threatened so that she’ll sell her home. There’s also the naive restaurant worker, a bored rich girl, and an American con-man. Every one of their paths brushes against the other in the absurdist satire by Cathy Yan. “Dead Pigs” revolves around a real event: when 16,000 dead pigs floated down China’s Huangpu River in 2013.

Cathy Yan directed one of last year’s most underrated films, “Birds of Prey”. Her “Dead Pigs” came out in 2018 in China, but this is the very first time it’s available in the U.S.

You can watch “Dead Pigs” on MUBI with a subscription.

Song Without a Name (MUBI)
directed by Melina Leon

CW: child abduction

Georgina goes to a health clinic to give birth. It promises free service. The problem is it’s fake – the moment she gives birth to her daughter, the baby is taken away. There’s no explanation for it; her daughter has simply been kidnapped. In her search for help, a journalist is the only one willing to aid her.

The Peruvian film is told in Quechua and Spanish. If you’re not watching Peruvian film, you’re missing one of the most interesting spaces confronting the long-lasting impacts and modern mutations of colonialism. This is the first feature film from Melina Leon.

You can watch “Song Without a Name” on MUBI with a subscription.

The Third Wife (multiple)
directed by Ash Mayfair

CW: child marriage, sexual assault

This Vietnamese film centers on a 14 year-old girl who is to become the third wife to a landowner. Set in the 19th century, it follows her experiences as she is married off and pressured to have a son.

This is writer-director Ash Mayfair’s first feature film. She’s worked variously as writer, director, producer, and as sound mixer in a range of short films.

“The Third Wife” technically had a U.S. theatrical release in 2019 – in all of 8 theaters. That’s not really accessible to U.S. viewers, and this is the first time it’s reached one of the semi-major subscription streamers.

You can watch “The Third Wife” on Sundance Now, Kanopy, or Hoopla. Kanopy is a service paid for by libraries and universities. It should work with most public library cards or college log-ins. Alternately, see where to rent “The Third Wife”.

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (multiple)
directed by Anca Damian

This French and Romanian animated film finds a dog remembering their life after an accident. They recount all their different masters, and the events that brought them together and took them apart.

Anca Damian is a Romanian director who’s helmed both animated and live-action films, as well as narrative and documentary films.

This came out briefly for a virtual theatrical release last June, and this is the first time it’s arriving on a subscription streaming service.

You can watch “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” on Starz or Hoopla with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

Flora & Ulysses (Disney+)
directed by Lena Khan

A girl and her superpowered squirrel take off on adventures. The film is based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. She also wrote the book on which “The Tale of Despereaux” is based.

Director Lena Khan has created a wide-ranged resume in a short period of time. She followed 2016 period comedy “The Tiger Hunter” with “Schools of Torture”, directing re-enactments that shone a light on the methods of torture certain governments utilize. (Rest assured that “Flora & Ulysses” is listed as a family comedy.)

You can watch “Flora & Ulysses” on Disney+ with a subscription.

Namaste Wahala (Netflix)
directed by Hamisha Daryani Ahuja

This is the story of a Nigerian woman and an Indian man. They navigate a range of cultural differences and outside judgment in pursuing their relationship.

Hamisha Daryani Ahuja directs. She grew up in an Indian home in Nigeria, so aspects of the story reflect her own experiences. This is her first feature film.

You can watch “Namaste Wahala” on Netflix with a subscription.

Shook (Shudder)
directed by Jennifer Harrington

CW: potential epilepsy trigger, implied violence to an animal

An influencer is targeted online. She’ll have to solve riddles and play her stalker’s game in order to save the ones she loves.

Jennifer Harrington chiefly works as an editor and this is her second feature after indie horror “Housekeeping”.

You can watch “Shook” on Shudder with a subscription.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — August 21, 2020

Of the 10 entries this week, seven come from Netflix. Most weeks aren’t that exaggerated, but as I’ve done this the last several months, Netflix has tended to come up more than any other single service or distributor.

Obviously, a number of factors could influence this – they have the most new original and acquired programming of any streaming service, regularly outpacing their competitors in terms of sheer output. I feel confident in saying Netflix has put out the most projects directed or showrun by women these last several months. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve had the highest ratio.

It also runs into the boundaries of a weekly feature like this. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not covering reality TV or kids shows. That may change how much content is being overseen by women. As “Unreal” once so deftly addressed through Constance Zimmer’s Quinn, women have an extremely difficult time breaking out of reality TV showrunning and into narrative projects in an industry that’s still extremely misogynist.

Is Netflix doing the best job? I don’t know, but they are who I’m seeing the most in researching this feature. Is it a good enough job? Still probably not – the majority of projects are still overseen by men. You can recognize that Netflix has made what seems like a dedicated push, and still recognize there’s a lot further to go.

SERIES

Lovecraft Country (HBO)
showrunner Misha Green

“Lovecraft Country” looks exceptional. It follows three Black characters in the 1950s as they search for the protagonist’s father amid rampant racism and Lovecraftian mysteries and monsters. It’s based on a book that tells eight stories weaving in and out of each other.

Showrunner Misha Green co-created the show with Jordan Peele. She started as a staff writer on “Sons of Anarchy” and writer on “Heroes”, and has more recently written and produced on “Helix” and “Underground”.

You can watch “Lovecraft Country” on HBO.

Teenage Bounty Hunters (Netflix)
showrunner Kathleen Jordan

Two 16 year olds essentially become bounty hunters while navigating the social pitfalls of high school. Played straight, I’d have a lot of questions, but as a comedy it has potential. Obviously, it’s a touchy time for a show about two white women taking on bounty work. Hopefully, this is acknowledged and addressed in some way.

Early reviews have been good, and it brings a segment of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “GLOW” team over, so it has the behind-the-camera talent to excel.

Showrunner Kathleen Jordan created the show. She’s a fairly new name, having written on “American Princess” and served in a number of segment producer and associate producer roles.

You can watch “Teenage Bounty Hunters” on Netflix.

Hoops (Netflix)
showrunners Jeny Batten, M. Dickson

The central figure of “Hoops” is Coach Ben Hopkins. He dreams of coaching in the NBA, but can’t even get the high school team he coaches to win. He’s constantly on the verge of being fired because…well, if you watch the trailer, you can hear why.

Showrunners Jeny Batten and M. Dickson have both produced for another Netflix animation, “Disenchantment”. They’ve worked together on a few shows, including “Superstore” and “Instant Mom”.

You can watch “Hoops” on Netflix.

MOVIES

Birds of Prey (HBO)
directed by Cathy Yan

“Birds of Prey” may be the most underrated film this year. It’s easily the best entry in the DC Extended Universe, and might be the best superhero movie in the last decade. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is that rare, generational action comedy performance that gets into Johnny Depp-as-Jack Sparrow territory. It’s subversive, it has a point to make, it brings the big “Tank Girl” energy that a character like Harley Quinn demands, the fight scenes are incredibly varied and creative, its unreliable narrator is psychologically complex, and the directing manages to be both confrontational and fun.

“Birds of Prey” is lightning in a bottle. Its go-for-broke attitude is something that increasingly complex extended universes and their checklists of fan service homework have tended to forget recently. It’s one of the best films of the year, and you should just see it.

Read my review of “Birds of Prey” if you still haven’t decided.

You can watch “Birds of Prey” on HBO, or see where to rent it streaming right here.

International Falls (Showtime)
directed by Amber McGinnis

Dee lives in a small, northern town. She wants to be a stand-up comic. She works at a hotel, where a self-described mediocre comedian stays. The two connect, discussing her dreams of stand-up and his disillusion with it.

Director Amber McGinnis has a background in helming interactive movies. Some have been about foreclosure education, some have been instructional videos for the Army. It’s usually not the path one takes toward an indie comedy, so it’s an interesting background to see.

You can watch “International Falls” on Showtime.

Crazy Awesome Teachers (Netflix)
directed by Sammaria Simanjuntak

A down-on-his-luck substitute teacher essentially fakes his way into the job. He resents it until the teachers’ salaries and his own father’s retirement payout are robbed by a local gang. He leads a group of teachers who decide to steal the money back in an elaborate heist.

I can’t find an English trailer, something many streaming services can forget to put on YouTube despite making them, but the Indonesian comedy should be available with English options.

“Crazy Awesome Teachers”, or “Guru-Guru Gokil”, is directed by Sammaria Simanjuntak. It’s her fourth narrative feature. It’s also co-written by Dian Sastrowardoyo, the Indonesian actress’s first screenwriting credit.

You can watch “Crazy Awesome Teachers” on Netflix.

The Sleepover (Netflix)
directed by Trish Sie

“The Sleepover” looks like it’s taking the baton from the defunct “Spy Kids”. The nice thing about family films like this is that there’s usually enough for adults to feel invested, too.

You might not know director Trish Sie’s name, but she’s done as much to change music videos in the last 15 years as any director, and she’s done so in only a few attempts. She’s largely responsible for OK Go’s unique aesthetic of eyecatching, lo-fi, DIY visual concepts.

What first truly caught the zeitgeist was her treadmill hopping one-shot of “Here It Goes Again”. Her zero-G one-shot “Upside Down and Inside Out” is…I mean, just watch it, it’s one of the most jaw dropping music videos ever made. Trish Sie should just be enabled to make whatever the hell she wants at this point.

You can watch “The Sleepover” on Netflix.

Good Kisser (Netflix)
directed by Wendy Jo Carlton

“Good Kisser” is about two women in a relationship who decide to invite a third to join them. What they don’t expect is that it forces them to examine their fractures and dissatisfaction as partners.

Wendy Jo Carlton has made a number of dramatic comedies centering on same sex partners, starting with 2004’s “Brushfires” and continuing through “Hannah Free” and “Jamie and Jessie are Not Together”.

You can watch “Good Kisser” on Netflix, or see where to rent it streaming right here.

DOCUMENTARIES

Islands of Faith (Netflix documentary)
directed by Chairun Nissa

“Islands of Faith” examines how seven different communities in Indonesia are addressing climate change, and how these efforts intersect with faith and culture.

This is director Chairun Nissa’s second feature. Her first was “Cut”, covering how Indonesian films must face censorship before public release. Many are rejected for non-specific reasons and never see the light of day.

You can watch “Islands of Faith” on Netflix.

High Score (Netflix docu-series)
showrunner Melissa Wood

“High Score” covers the history of various older video games. What’s remarkable about this age is that we can still directly interview many of the people involved in the birth of an entire medium. We can’t still interview the first people who put words to page or the first filmmakers. We still have access to many of the first game developers.

One thing that “High Score” reveals is just how much diversity is hidden in the history of video games. Developers are often fairly faceless when compared with authors and filmmakers. There was a brief period in the late 90s/early 00s of rock star developers (such as Cliff Bleszinski and John Romero). This passed with AAA game studios treating developers as increasingly replaceable, developer figureheads turning into publisher figureheads (such as Gabe Newell and Todd Howard), and gaming communities becoming more segmented across a variety of indie developers.

There are good and bad aspects of this, but it means that most video game audiences don’t have a ton of access to knowledge about the history of the medium and the storytelling lessons that history can teach us. The point is, that history is often assumed to be largely male, straight, and white. It isn’t, and “High Score” shows at least some of this when talking about classic games.

Showrunner Melissa Wood is an experienced series producer who’s worked across documentary and reality TV.

You can watch “High Score” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Wednesday Collective — “Birds of Prey” Edition

I’m going to keep talking about “Birds of Prey” because it is just that important a film. It’s underrated, speaks to our time, and it’s a lightning rod of toxic reaction to its feminism and diversity. I stopped counting how many comments from people with “nazi” in their name I had on my article “’Birds of Prey’ Box Office Failure is Make Believe”.

This is a film with a generationally good action-comedy performance in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It has award-worthy design. The direction is wildly assured and draws from a shockingly large range of influences to create something unique and precise. Its scenes are often thickly layered with dueling perspectives even as Quinn’s own storytelling drives the plot. It’s subversive in a blunt, forward, and challenging way that’s needed.

I used to run Wednesday Collective as a weekly gathering of articles on (mostly) film that I found interesting. One of the joys of being a critic is sharing voices with readers that cover diverse perspectives, and that help me learn. Let’s talk about what they have to say about the film’s treatment of trauma, its “Tank Girl” connection, its meaningful costuming, director Cathy Yan, and Margot Robbie as a producer.

BIRDS OF PREY, Trauma, and the Female Gaze
by Jessica Plummer

Birds of Prey lead 1 resize

This is a superb article at Book Riot that deals with a particular moment in “Birds of Prey”. It’s something I could tell was playing out differently, but because I have a male gaze, I focused on the reaction and what that said about toxic masculinity.

There was also something else happening in the scene that I couldn’t identify, that plays to female gaze. That there are so many moments in a film like this, and that it can produce this level of layered meaning in a scene, continues to blow my mind.

It’s also an argument for why we need more women in film and as critics. A male director wouldn’t have included this in the film. A male critic wouldn’t have noticed it in the film. Yet as a man, I can benefit, know more, and find more beauty and care in a piece of art simply from it being included and pointed out to me.

A Girl is a Gun: ‘Birds of Prey’ and the Legacy of ‘Tank Girl’
by Maya Thornton

Promo image for 1995 cult film Tank Girl

Maya Thornton points out for Adventures in Poor Taste one of the stronger influences in “Birds of Prey”: director Rachel Talalay’s 1995 cult classic “Tank Girl”.

Her article considers the through-lines in story, design, and comedy, how each film treats women (and how men react), as well as the differences in how studios acted toward these films in 1995 vs. 2020.

She doesn’t mention, but Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment optioned the rights to “Tank Girl” in September 2019 as a starring vehicle for Robbie. That doesn’t mean it will definitely get made, but with the film already months into pre-production and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who directed Robbie in “Dreamland”) tapped to direct it, it’s reasonable to hope.

Harley Quinn’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes are Full of Hidden Meanings
by Irina Grechko

Various Harley Quinn costumes from Birds of Prey

Fashion-centric site Nylon goes into the inspirations behind costume designer Erin Benach’s unique and varied costumes. The strongest influences in “Birds of Prey” are DIY glampunk and glitterpunk, but Blaxploitation, 50s fashion iconography, and emo clubbing accessories each inform characters in the film.

Benach needed to create costumes that made statements, told histories, and defined the world of the film. They needed to be utilitarian and focused on the characters’ preferences instead of the male gaze that dictated Harley Quinn’s costume design in “Suicide Squad”. One of Benach’s most interesting imperatives was to take these influences and do something revolutionary with them – add pants.

How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze
by Melissa Leon

Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, and director Cathy Yan in Birds of Prey

Here’s a rangy interview with director Cathy Yan at The Daily Beast. “Birds of Prey” is one of the most self-assured films I’ve seen recently, and it offers a storytelling voice that feels more authentic than anything else DC or even Marvel have done. Yan talks about accentuating the female gaze and how a woman filming women focuses on the actual performance being given. Yan wanted to make sure her characters sweat and that the work and effort they put forth was aspirational – not the impossible beauty standard of an impeccably photoshopped magazine cover.

This is also a different Gotham City than we’ve seen, and Yan has a precise reason for this. She discusses why she wanted to make Harley’s section of Gotham feel like a neighborhood on the outskirts instead of gloomy, downtown Gotham – that a story taking place on the outskirts of power avoids telling a story that focuses too much on established patriarchy.

How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny
by Anne Helen Petersen

Margot Robbie holds grenade launcher in Birds of Prey

Anne Helen Petersen breaks down Robbie’s path to production and how it enables her to choose her roles and expand the range of other voices in film. The BuzzFeed News article reminds us that Robbie isn’t just clearing a path as an extremely capable actress, she’s also one of the promising and hardest working young producers in film.

Petersen does this in an absolutely brilliant and captivating piece that calls to account male journalists’ coverage of young actresses. It takes steps beyond this to interrogate the opportunities blocked to women as producers and how Robbie’s seized on becoming an important and exciting risk-taker. It highlights the history of how studios have limited women’s opportunities as producers, how women have fought back, and how patriarchal systems artificially block women into competing for limited opportunities while men aren’t similarly obstructed.

That would be more than enough to make the article stunning and important, but Petersen also threads how class plays into the opportunities women have, and how it informs and leads to typecasting, while also recognizing Robbie wouldn’t have this opportunity if she were nonwhite. I’m trying really hard not to swear to accentuate just how good this article is.

When something is this well-researched, clearly voiced, intersectionally woven, and pointedly structured, it is important. It functions as crucial journalism as well as a clear-eyed piece of art unto itself. Read this, it is one of the best articles covering the industry of filmmaking that I’ve recently read.

If you enjoy what you’re reading, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Audacious, Subversive, Confrontational — “Birds of Prey”

I didn’t think I’d be writing this, but “Birds of Prey” is in that elite category of best superhero movies we’ve got. So you know where I’m coming from, I’m a bit exhausted on superhero films. I still go see them, and I think they’re better than they’ve ever been…so why are they sometimes tiring? There’s always the potential that I’ll be walking into something that feels extremely similar to what I’ve seen before.

That happened quickly with the Zack Snyder-directed Superman, Batman, and Justice League films. Everything began to feel blue, black, grim, and strangely plastic. Characters got less and less time to simply be themselves.

It’s taken Marvel longer to get there, but it’s found its own pitfalls. Fulfilling as it was as I watched it, I left “Avengers: Endgame” feeling like it was a largely empty experience. That was a strange feeling. I’d just cried at the sacrifice made at the end; I was excited by the fights; I laughed when expected to.

That’s the thing. As solo superhero movies increasingly get to extend into other genres and make more blatant social and political statements, the most bankable core films color by the numbers more and more. They often do so extremely well, even artfully – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing what I’ve seen before. I was excited, laughed, and cried when the filmmakers expected – and when I expected. I miss being surprised by those things.

When watching superhero films, sometimes I feel like I’m having more of a Pavlovian response than an honest emotion. What’s worse is that it becomes difficult to tell the difference.

Enter “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”. It’s thematically blunt and wants you to know it. It’s also wacky, violent, slapstick fun. The story is told out of order, sometimes under various influences, by villain-as-antihero Harley Quinn.

It boils down to finding a gemstone everyone’s after, which means capturing the young pickpocket who stole it. Gotham City’s criminal underworld has just become aware that Quinn is no longer protected by the Joker, so they’re after both Quinn and the gemstone. Of course, it becomes much more complicated than that, but let’s not spoil a good thing.

Something I am thankful for is that the Joker is passingly referenced, but never seen. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge Jared Leto’s Joker while hopefully never having to see that version on screen again.

Quinn ends up alternately running from and working with the pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), under-appreciated police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a singer trying to hide a superpower in Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead at her Winsteadiest).

I found myself thinking chiefly of two films as I watched, and they aren’t what I’d call similar. “The Usual Suspects” came to mind because of the out-of-order storytelling. Quinn is an inherently untrustworthy narrator, though for our purposes we can believe what she’s telling us. She’s more importantly a narrator who wants to tell the audience the thought she’s most excited about before filling in its context. This creates moments where we take guesses why she’s doing something, but we have to wait to be proven right or wrong. Essentially, events are strung together in a way that makes sense to her, and we pick up on how they fit together as we listen and watch. It feels conversational.

Birds of Prey Harley Quinn cocaine scene.jpg

The other film that came to mind is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Despite some problems I have with that film, it still may be the best example of fusing traditional animation into live action. The comparison isn’t because “Birds of Prey” incorporates a ton of animation. It opens with an animated sequence. When they’re introduced, new characters get a freeze-frame that’s sometimes drawn all over like the cover of a Trapper Keeper.

Other than that, there’s not a great deal of animation used in the film. “Roger Rabbit” comes to mind more because of the way Quinn herself exists in her story. She’s all but a cartoon character at times, and in terms of actors emulating past portrayals, her performance is as close to the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” as anyone will ever get in live action.

The work Robbie’s doing here is complicated, and it requires comedic and dramatic performances that fit a range of different genres to function. Beyond that, she’s doing most of her own stunts and fight choreography. The same praise we once gave to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” should be finding its way to Robbie in “Birds of Prey”. (It won’t, but that’s another conversation.)

“Birds of Prey” navigates a ludicrous range of influences and genres while doing all this. Director Cathy Yan starts by essentially taking Zack Snyder’s midnight blue-and-black DCEU and exploding bright colors all over it. What follows pulls from blaxploitation cinema, kung fu films, Michael Mann cop montages, Marilyn Monroe dance numbers, fashion magazines, “Trainspotting”, and Mel Brooks comedies.

Do you want a film that draws its set design influences equally from “A Clockwork Orange” and the 1960s “Batman” TV show? You have found it and it somehow works really well.

This isn’t just pulling from previous cinema, though. It’s also drawing from ultra-modern influences. Quinn’s meta interaction with the story means she occasionally interrupts herself to look at the camera and talk to the audience. It isn’t new for those who grew up watching “Saved by the Bell” and “Wayne’s World”, and it isn’t overdone, but the specific presentation here often recalls Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers.

It should all be a mess. It may be to some people. Yet while Yan is willing to spill utter chaos on us, it never gets in the way of presenting Quinn and her story. That’s what’s most impressive. A ridiculously complicated bit of interwoven choreography and cinematography will cut to a joke at the drop of a hat. Both Robbie and the editing need to be utterly on point to make it work. They both need to be so perfectly timed that they seem completely relaxed in the delivery. Yan’s broad comedy and action set-ups fuse with an editing and lead performance so exact and in rhythm they seem off-the-cuff.

Cathy Yan Margot Robbie Birds of Prey.jpg

In other words, that chaos holds together because that rhythm and relationship between Yan as director and Robbie as actor can veer from the broad to the precise with such control that it all seems easy. “Birds of Prey” is what happens when you watch masters of their craft who synchronize with each other perfectly.

This same sensibility shapes the action, too. The set-pieces here are as good as you can get, in large part because Yan makes the job so much more complicated than it has to be.

The action scenes live off their props and set design elements. Yan’s set pieces are often immensely complicated, yet they flow naturally. There’s a cartoon logic at play in a more dramatic live-action presentation. Robbie constantly makes you wonder why all the people trying to kill Quinn brought guns to her baseball bat fight.

There’s also a consistent feel despite Yan regularly switching filmmaking tools in these fights. Pastel smoke grenades and sandbag bullets that explode in glitter get slow-motion cause they’re so colorful, while Robbie plays the fight slapstick for the camera.

You expect that to be the way fights happen in this movie, yet a few scenes later the fight is hard hitting and plays at full speed. The comedy comes instead from reaction shots cut in for Robbie to deliver dialogue.

A fairly straightforward fight beneath drenching water gets choreography movements edited in isolation – one or two movements per edit, a few seconds per shot.

A later fight involving dozens of characters, roller skates, guns, shifting elements on a rotating set, mirrors, all while swapping fight partners, props, and weapons features some shockingly long takes.

The minute you think you understand how the film wants to present its fight scenes, it’s turned that approach on its head. At the same time, they all feel part of a whole. That constant change in presentation makes sense. Yan is a director at the absolute top of her game, in complete control of what she wants to do, working with an actor who can essentially enable her to do anything she wants – in part because Robbie’s that good of an actor, and in part because she’s also the producer and can give Yan the cover to do it.

This film, Yan’s direction, and Robbie’s performance are all elements I’m fairly certain I’ll be talking about at the end of the year.

This doesn’t even get to the themes and elements at play: a refreshingly aggressive, unhidden feminism and extensive commentary on white male privilege and toxic masculinity – often through Ewan McGregor’s villain Black Mask.

The cast is diverse, which makes the world feel inhabited, more realistic, and more consequential.

This is a movie that treats subversion as something that you shove in the audience’s face and use to confront them, rather than an option you politely offer and hope they one day notice. In that way, Quinn might be the hero we need, not just the one we deserve.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Birds of Prey” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Margot Robbie plays Harley Quinn. Rosie Perez plays Renee Montoya. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain. Ali Wong plays Ellen Yee. There are various other women with brief speaking parts.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. I’d say that it’s possible the majority of the dialogue is between women, but studies show that men are incredibly bad at assessing this ratio, so I could very easily be wrong.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They often talk about their plans, their frustrations, plot developments, and each other.

When they do talk about men, it’s often about men standing in their way or taking credit for their accomplishments.

Quinn’s narrative monologue makes up a lot of the film, so it’s also worth addressing. It starts off revolving around her break-up with the Joker, but quickly moves along to the plot, and discussions of the other characters – mostly, but not exclusively women.

This section is a way to talk about whether a film meets some excruciatingly basic expectations. It’s not a measure of whether something is feminist or not. “Birds of Prey” is far more confrontational about feminist aspects than a lot of films, but I also recognize the character in some ways serves a very male gaze. That isn’t quite toned down in the sense that 190 is less than 200 but still a lot. More what’s communicated is that Quinn embraces her own sense of style for herself – because it’s who she wants to be – and less for the male gaze. That it still serves that gaze is complicated.

There’s also the conversation that Anita Sarkeesian brings up in relation to many movies where women demonstrate equality by displaying a violence that’s typically understood as male. Sarkeesian has said in the past about similar films (such as “Mad Max: Fury Road”) that embracing and performing male violence as women is an act that solidifies patriarchy rather than dissolving it.

I did think about this because of the extent to which Quinn is a character who plays to the male gaze. I write about fight choreography often, and is her violence equalizing, tantalizing, or both? If it’s equalizing, does the notion that it’s tantalizing undermine it? Or am I reading tantalization where there is none, and introducing that aspect through my own bias?

I can say that the film often delivers feminist ideas in a way that’s more forthright than most, but that it also potentially possesses problematic elements. I try to be careful with this section because it should be informational. This section exists because it’s something all critics should be engaging, not in order to tell someone what to think.

I’m a man, so I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which the feminism works or doesn’t work. What I can do in this section is provide information and be transparent about how it interacts with the biases I bring. I can communicate some of the specific questions that I’m unable to answer because – as a man – I’m not the one qualified to do so. Ideally, that communicates important feminist elements about the film without pretending I’m qualified to then judge or assess those elements.

It’s also important to highlight Black Mask’s embodiment of white male privilege and incel-adjacent toxic masculinity. He becomes excited about all the things he has, showing off supposedly colonialist treasures while talking about the exotic places he got them from. If someone isn’t in his employ, he wonders why they aren’t “his”, as if they’re toys. He abuses those around him, he perceives others’ emotions as targeting him when he’s upset, and he becomes upset when things that were never his to start with are “taken” from him.

McGregor delivers a beautiful lampoon of all these things succinctly, and characters like Quinn and Black Canary criticize this through their reactions and monologues.

Another consistent theme is men taking credit for the work of women. Joker always took credit for Quinn’s achievements. Montoya’s police captain was promoted for her work. Black Canary can be used by Black Mask, but he can’t trust her. Everyone assumes a mysterious “Crossbow Killer” is a man when she’s a woman.

Diversity

This is also a good section to address the film’s diversity in greater depth. Three of our heroes/anti-heroes are non-white. It’s good to see. The surrounding characters are also very diverse – this includes good guys, bad guys, and bystanders.

Some characters who betray in both large ways and the everyday are non-white. You always want to be careful when presenting people of color as traitorous or self-interested. You threaten to portray all people of that race or ethnicity as being that way because there’s so little other representation for people of color in media – and especially superhero films.

I’m not sure to what extent this is or isn’t stopped off by three of our heroes being Latina, Black, and Korean-Filipino – especially because they’re anti-heroes and not exemplary heroes. Stereotypes are generally avoided, and the film as a whole has an interest in portraying a diverse world. In general, I’m pretty happy with how it comes off. It’s not just for the sake of diversity, though that’s important on its own terms. It’s also because a world that looks like ours feels like it has more consequence, regardless of what genres it’s hopping through.

The Batman universe and its rogues’ gallery has always struggled with portraying mental health. It’s the major Achilles heel that tends to limit its aspects of representation. Criminality in Batman’s world is often associated with mental illness, rather than greed or bigotry.

“Birds of Prey” doesn’t fix this, but it does avoid to some extent presenting Harley Quinn as a criminal due to any mental health issues. Her presentation here is more akin to an outlaw hero. Others call her “crazy” and sometimes she points out the equally ridiculous things they’re doing. They call her dumb and she reminds them she has a PhD. I wouldn’t say “Birds of Prey” avoids further harm along these lines, but it avoids leaning on it the way so many other Batman universe stories have.

Rosie Perez

One thing in particular that gave me joy is that I never knew how much I wanted to see Rosie Perez beat dudes up. She was an outspoken Latina who broke ground for Latinas in film in the early 90s before seeing declining work and criticism for everything that made her identifiably Puerto Rican and Nuyorican – her skin color, her accent, her presentation. Growing up then, she only ever came up when someone needed to make fun of Latinas. I didn’t know about her indie film history, her awards, any of that. Growing up in a very white suburb, my only understanding of her was that she was someone shameful that reflected aspects of my Latino heritage that I felt I should hide.

So it feels really good to see her beat down villains at 55 years old. It doesn’t just feel redemptive, it also feels like – here’s this person who white peers used to reinforce my otherness. And now she’s the closest thing the film has to a hero, fighting a corrupt system and the people who made it that way with brass knuckles.

I don’t often think of Perez or the way she was talked about back then. It applied to countless Latinx people. Yet when one of them rises and I recall how my white peers focused their antagonism on something they compartmentalized as otherness, it feels freeing to see her still fighting back, as an actor and as a character. She never really stopped as an activist for Puerto Rico, yet that doesn’t get the attention that being in a superhero movie can. It pushes acceptance in an additional way, and I can’t help but be thankful there are other Latinx kids today seeing her be accepted for the roles she once would’ve had no chance at playing.

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