Cathy Yan’s bubblegum-hued crime saga Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B-) is another origin story in the DC Extended Universe and follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as she joins forces with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and several vigilantes to fight Gotham City crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. The film is chock-full of throwaway gags, gallows humor and cartoonish violence with a tinge of sisterhood power, but it’s rarely as sharp as it needs to be. Yan scrambles the enterprise with flashbacks, animation and witty title cards, but often it feels like a magic trick to disguise a threadbare story. Although McGregor is miscast and not menacing enough, the women in the film are marvelous. Robbie is wonderful as the devil-may-care antihero, and Bell is a sonic sensation. The stunts and wall-to-wall action should please fans of the genre; it reaches mightily but doesn’t quite take the flight it promises.
This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.