JUNGLE CRUISE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Rampage), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), Edgar Ramírez (Deliver Us from Evil), Jack Whitehall (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Jesse Plemons (Game Night), Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter)

Writers: Michael Green (Logan) and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris)

Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes

Release Date: 30th July (US, UK, Disney+)

Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean became a surprise hit back in 2003, Disney have tried multiple times to strike that same gold again to mostly unsatisfying results. We had The Haunted Mansion, Prince of Persia, The Lone Ranger, the National Treasure movies, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and of course four Pirates sequels, but none ever captured that same blend of adventure, comedy and fantasy quite the same as the Gore Verbinski original. One such project that’s been in development pretty much since the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl was a film version of another classic Disney theme park ride: Jungle Cruise…which has even less to base a movie around. It was no epic plot or iconic characters or even much of a unique setting; it’s just a boat ride full of animatronics and dated references to colonialism. Then again, that lack of concrete source material has given the filmmakers much greater reign to do what they want, and the final result is a dumb fun movie that’s a lot better than it has any right to be.

Beyond the basic concept of a boat journey down a jungle river and some cute lamp-shading references early on, Jungle Cruise is completely its own thing and doesn’t feel the need to be so beholden to the ride. The story is straight out of a classic 1950s movie serial and comes with all the tropes you’d expect from the genre, but it has a more modern edge that keeps it fresh and sets it apart from obvious Indiana Jones comparisons. Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, 1999’s The Mummy is an obvious reference point for the kind of tone and spirit it’s going for, especially in how it incorporates fantasy and horror elements into the swashbuckling adventure. For the first two acts, Jungle Cruise is pretty content to paddle along and play the beats you’d expect, but it does so with such exuberance and canny wit that it’s easy to forget how cliché everything is and just have fun.

However, the story takes a firm whip around into uncharted territory with its end of second act reveal, which will either snap you right out of the movie or make you finally fall in love with it despite yourself. It is a genuinely solid twist that changes the stakes and opens up loads of new possibilities, though it unfortunately doesn’t take as much advantage of it as one might like. Unless you’re the kind of person still surprised by the idea of a female scientist, there’s no real hidden depth or themes to speak of in Jungle Cruise, but it’s so obviously not trying to be anything more than what it is: simple blockbuster fluff. It’s well-made, self-aware, and infectiously charming blockbuster fluff, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Its only real flaw (other than being about twenty minutes too long) is that it doesn’t take enough chances. If it really took advantage of the few unique ideas it has, it could have set it apart from its inspirations more rather than just being a solid tribute act to them.

(from left to right) Emily Blunt as Dr Lily Houghton, Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff, and Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Hollywood at this point is basically letting Dwayne Johnson do anything and everything he wants, but I’ve never seen a role so suited to him and yet so miscast in as Frank Wolff in Jungle Cruise. Johnson excels at two, and only two, things: action and comedy. In those facets, he fits the mould of the dashing adventure serial hero so well that he’s basically a movie poster that wished they were a real boy. He’s as charming and goofy and all-around likable as ever, but this type of role also demands the hero to be a romantic and, sadly, that’s just not in Johnson’s wheelhouse. Emily Blunt is as fantastic as you’d expect her to be in this type of role, even if she is simply stepping into the shoes of Rachel Weisz from The Mummy, and whilst she and Johnson have fantastic comedic chemistry and play off each other well in the action sequences, there is nothing romantic about their relationship other than what the script says. For the longest time, it seemed like the movie was going to skip a romance subplot and it was refreshing to have a mixed-gender duo not fall in love, but then it happens and Johnson simply cannot sell himself as a romantic lead. This kind of role really calls for someone more sensuous and smooth, like Pedro Pascal or 90s-era Antonio Banderas, and Johnson doesn’t have that quality…at least not yet. If he ever does acquire it, then he’ll be truly unstoppable.

In a surprising turn of events, this is easily the least annoying Jack Whitehall has ever been in anything, managing to turn a mostly thankless comic relief character as Blunt’s brother into something a little more evolved. He’s delicate and pompous but he’s not without bravery, getting in on the action by the end and having more of a noticeable character arc than either Johnson or Blunt. As has happened often with recent Disney productions, much has been made of Whitehall’s character being openly gay and, whilst still not a fully realised representation and done in a way easily excisable for homophobic foreign markets, it’s the most tasteful queer character in a Disney movie so far. It’s not some throwaway background gag or an exaggerated caricature defined only by queerness, but a brief and touching character moment that adds much-needed depth to the role, and Whitehall plays it with restraint and even a little pathos. Jungle Cruise also features three villains of varying import, but it seems one of them didn’t get the memo on what kind of movie this is. Whilst Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti are absolutely hamming it up to the gods with ridiculous accents as a moustache-twirling German aristocrat and a money-grubbing Italian harbourmaster respectively, Edgar Ramírez plays it completely straight as undead conquistador Aguirre. It’s a role that demands a performance as high-energy as Geoffrey Rush’s similar antagonist in the Pirates franchise but, even with all of the ripe potential of his character’s backstory and abilities, Ramírez feels as unable to play camp as Johnson is at playing amorous. At least Aguirre’s henchmen understood the assignment and get in on the humour occasionally.

Jungle Cruise Trailer Reveals Jesse Plemons' German Villain
Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

As usual, Disney have spared no expense on Jungle Cruise and their $200 million investment has paid off with a vibrant and impeccable-looking movie…for the most part. More than even the plot and character archetypes, this movie screams adventure so much that it’s essentially a Drew Struzan painting come to life, constantly hitting the audience with saturated colours and joyously-designed iconography. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is pure pulp, brimming with bright, streaming lighting and sweeping camera motions that captures old-fashioned filmmaking style but exaggerated to modern effect. The sets and costumes have that embellished, too-perfect quality of a theme park attraction, but they only add to the heightened reality the film is going for. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best imitations of John Williams-style fanfare I’ve heard in ages, perfectly accentuating every scene with the right tones of whimsy and excitement, though it somewhat goes off the rails in a sequence detailing Johnson’s backstory by bringing in hard electric guitars out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the film’s major technical shortcoming is its CGI, which the film highly relies on and just isn’t up to snuff most of the time. It’s decent enough when used to create environments or anything unreal, like the various undead afflictions of Aguirre and his minions, but the CG animals are all uniformly bad-looking. This is especially pertinent as Proxima, Frank’s pet jaguar, is a major character throughout the story and, whilst her animation work is decent and she’s an endearing character, she never quite steps out of the uncanny valley.

Jungle Cruise's Paul Giamatti Wrote A Lot Of His Own Dialogue
Paul Giamatti as Nilo Nemolato in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Jungle Cruise is a welcome throwback to the family adventure movies of the 80s and 90s, and easily the best attempt by Disney to emulate Pirates of the Caribbean‘s success yet. It understands the core appeal of its premise exactly and doubles down on being unabashedly broad, with its main shortcomings coming from trying too hard in some places and not enough in others. Kids will likely be unbothered by these issues and just go along for the ride, but there’s enough humour and camp fun here for parents to enjoy themselves too. It may be the kind of film that you enjoy more whilst watching it but lacks much impact afterwards, but sometimes that’s all you need. Not every movie needs to be a solid gold masterpiece, and Jungle Cruise knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It’s a slightly bloated and messy example of that kind of movie, but it gets away with a lot on pure charm and enthusiasm.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

THE SUICIDE SQUAD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), John Cena (Bumblebee), Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Jai Courtenay (Jack Reacher), Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Daniela Melchior (The Black Book), Michael Rooker (Slither), Alice Braga (The New Mutants), Pete Davidson (The King of Staten Island), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), Sean Gunn (The Belko Experiment), Flula Borg (Pitch Perfect 2), Mayling Ng, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 30th July (UK), 6th August (US/HBO Max)

Just to preface this as I did with my Birds of Prey review: there is no rating I regret more than giving 2016’s Suicide Squad a 7.5/10. On further viewing, it has only gotten worse with time and I would delete my old review if not to serve as a reminder never to make that same mistake again; if I were to rate it now, I’d give it a 4 or 5 at best. That said, that first attempt was not without its merits, and it seems Warner Bros felt the same, keeping what worked and revamping everything else in this sequel/reboot. Of all the directors they could pick to give the franchise the jumpstart it needed, they couldn’t have made a better (or luckier) choice than James Gunn. I mean, the first Suicide Squad suffered because the studio tried to take a brooding David Ayer movie and retrofit it into a Guardians of the Galaxy-style romp, so why not just hire the guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy? However, The Suicide Squad (that The is very important) is far more than just Gunn repeating his same tricks but for a new team and with gore. It’s a celebration of every disparate facet of the DC Universe, taking all the bonkers characters and concepts of this world and throwing them into a bloody blender of entertaining excess. You aren’t going to find a bolder, bloodier, or more utterly bonkers summer movie than this.

Whilst it generally stands on its own, The Suicide Squad is functional as a follow-up to the 2016 film and even opens in a similar fashion: a motley crew of characters introduced in prison as they assemble for a mission whilst a classic rock song plays. However, this worrying sense of déjà vu is quickly thrown on its head as Gunn subverts your expectations and reminds you that this is a Suicide Squad movie: no character is sacred, and the odds are stacked against them, so don’t get too attached. It’s a brilliant opening that gets us into the action efficiently and pushes the reset button without completely tossing everything Ayer contributed. The plot itself is simple and straightforward at first, allowing us to focus more on the disparate characters of Task Force X and their contentious relationships, but it grows in scope as the film progresses before reaching an epic finale that delivers what James Gunn does best: high-concept action combined with irreverent humour and a healthy dose of heart. The pacing is taught in all the right places, there are some wonderful references and call-backs to the DC Universe that will please diehard fans, and the tone is so wonderfully balanced that not a single emotional shift feels too jarring. The first film posited itself as a story about bad guys turned good but only paid lip service to the idea, but The Suicide Squad actually delivers on that and more. This is a story about the scum of society learning that they have value, that they don’t have to be the villains that society paints them as, and that the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so noble themselves.

(from left to right) David Dastmalchian as Abner Krill/Polka-Dot Man, John Cena as Christopher Smith/Peacemaker, Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport, and Daniela Melchior as Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher 2 in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

It’s hard to talk about the cast of The Suicide Squad because not only are there a lot of characters, but how much I talk about them may give away how long they survive. Rest assured though: nobody turns in a bad performance, and they all get at least one glorious moment to shine. Margot Robbie is as captivating as always as Harley Quinn and, whilst she mostly takes a backseat to the new cast, she gets some of her best moments so far here. While never outright mentioned, the script takes into account her character development in Birds of Prey, delivering a more self-assured and capable Harley but without losing her wicked charm. Idris Elba ably takes on the straight man role as Bloodsport, grounding the film whenever it goes off the rails and reminding the audience that real people exist in this fantastical world. That said, it is still fairly obvious Elba’s part was originally written with Will Smith’s Deadshot in mind, and I wish the film did a better job of differentiating the two characters. John Cena is an absolute delight as the deluded Peacemaker, ably making use of both his physicality and comedic abilities to craft a truly unpredictable character; F9, this is how you make good use of your John Cena. The real surprise of the movie ends up being Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, taking a very obscure character and turning her into the emotional heart of the story, and the relationship she forms with Elba’s character brings home the film’s themes of redemption and hope.

There are so many great characters to talk about that I’d honestly be raving for another thousand words if I talked about them all in detail, so I’m going to have to bring up the rest in rapid succession and leave the rest for you to discover:

  • David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man is delightfully creepy and the recurring gag with his mother never stops being funny
  • Everything that comes out of King Shark’s mouth is hilarious, and the fact he has Sylvester Stallone’s voice makes it even funnier
  • Jai Courtenay as Captain Boomerang is still the best performance he’s ever given
  • Rick Flagg actually has something to do besides spout exposition this time, and Joel Kinnaman’s po-faced delivery is used for more comedic effect.
  • It wouldn’t be a James Gunn movie without Michael Rooker, and of course he’s as great as you’d expect playing Savant
  • Pete Davidson as Blackguard? Yeah, it’s exactly as ridiculous and funny as you’d expect
  • Taika Waititi’s role is barely more than a one-line cameo, but that one line made me shed a tear; it’s a really well-placed emotional moment
  • Weasel is a wonderfully revolting addition to the team, and Sean Gunn is great as both him and a certain other DC villain in a quick appearance
  • Nathan Fillion mines a lot of great gags out of such a disposable and ridiculous character as TDK
  • Peter Capaldi doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Thinker, but he has a great speech with Flagg that delivers a real gut punch
  • Viola Davis truly embodies the spirit of Amanda Waller this time around and goes to some truly despicable places; she is that character you love to hate
  • Alice Braga is a bit wasted as freedom fighter Sol Soria, and the human villains themselves are pretty generic bad guys right out of a schlocky 80s action movie, but they have their moments
  • I know the real villain is spoiled in the trailers, but just in case you’ve managed to stay dark…OMG, they really do this character justice and simply seeing them brought to life in a live-action movie is a wondrous feat in and of itself!
Mayling Ng as Mongal and Margot Robbie as Dr Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The first Suicide Squad had a lot of problems, but on a technical level it was an absolutely unredeemable mess; a clusterf*ck of horrendous editing, monotonous action, ugly cinematography, and a disgusting use of obvious soundtrack choices that just scream of studio meddling and trend chasing. Looking at its successor, however, the difference is night-and-day. This truly is a DC comic brought to life, smashing together bright colours and fantastical visuals with the most cartoonish violence this side of an Itchy & Scratchy episode. Special commiserations must go to costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who has translated some incredibly ridiculous outfits from the comics to the screen with nary a change and yet it simply works; the days when X-Men had to make self-deprecating jokes about yellow spandex are truly over. The action sequences make full use of its diverse characters’ unique skillsets to both bloody and comedic effect, making every encounter feel special and surprising. There are a lot of standout moments but, besides the larger-than-life climax, the best sequence is easily Harley’s escape from the clutches of a Corto Malteasean dictator; it takes what worked so wonderfully about the action in Birds of Prey, turns it up to 11, and delivers something as viscerally satisfying as that legendary hallway fight from Oldboy. John Murphy’s score is subdued but wonderfully carries the action along, and the soundtrack this time is far more tastefully curated and don’t overwhelm every scene; it’s not quite Awesome Mix-levelsof catchy tunes, but there are some nice deep cuts in there.

Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The Suicide Squad is everything you could want from a DC movie and more, improving on every aspect of the first film and setting a new standard for the franchise going forward. There are certainly echoes of Guardians of the Galaxy within its DNA, but Gunn equally embraces his earlier, more gruesome filmography to craft what is essentially a $100 million Troma movie. After his career was so very nearly torpedoed by his hasty (and eventually retracted) firing by Disney, it’s so satisfying to see Gunn continue to succeed and have as much fun in the DC sandbox as he did in Marvel’s. The fact he’s going to able to continue playing in both sets of toys, with the upcoming Peacemaker streaming series and the long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, shows there is no better time to be a fan of both comic book universes.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: LeBron James (Trainwreck), Don Cheadle (Iron Man 3), Cedric Joe, Khris Davis (Atlanta), Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery), Jeff Bergman (New Looney Tunes), Eric Bauza (DuckTales), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home)

Director: Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip)

Writers: Juel Taylor (Creed II) & John Rettenmaier (Cabarete) & Keenan Coogler & Terence Nance (Random Acts of Flyness) and Jesse Gordon (Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Celeste Ballard (Wrecked)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 16th July (US/HBO Max, UK)

Certain members of my generation are going to call blasphemy, but it needs to be said: Space Jam is not a good movie, and anyone saying it is unironically either haven’t seen it in years or are wearing the chunkiest nostalgia goggles in the world. I say that as a kid of the late 90s who grew up loving it, but its twenty-five years later now and I’m sorry, but the movie simply has not aged well. It’s tacky, nonsensical and nothing but a feature-length version of the shoe commercials that inspired it; a cinematic artefact of all the worst aspects of its generation. Still, it was a massive hit at the time and Warner Bros. has spent over two decades trying and failing to cash in on it. There were several aborted attempts at a successor, with pitches that teamed up the Looney Tunes with the likes of Jackie Chan, Jeff Gordon, Tiger Woods and Tony Hawk before eventually making the much-improved Looney Tunes: Back in Action…which was a box office flop that effectively ended their status as pop culture icons. But even after all that, the love for Space Jam has remained and fans continued to clamour for a true sequel. Those 90s kids have finally gotten their wish in the form of A New Legacy, and I can confidently say it is a very faithful sequel…in that it is also a tacky and nonsensical feature-length commercial.

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) - Rotten Tomatoes

If you start explaining the plot of Space Jam out loud, you quickly realised how utterly insane and haphazard the whole story is; it’s basically a MadLibs written by a nine-year-old on a sugar high that someone spent $80 million turning into a movie. In that respect, A New Legacy carries on the tradition with its own equally bizarre narrative but at least tries to mine some depth out of it. At its core, it’s a basic father-and-son story that you’ve seen play out in dozens of sitcoms, and the resulting tension and resolution goes exactly how you’d think with no major twists. There are hints at something deeper, like how LeBron James takes out his childhood insecurities on his family and teammates, or Bugs Bunny’s implied depression and desperation to reunite with his friends, but none of these ever really develop into anything important.

I will give the film some points for at least trying to have a coherent message and emotional sincerity compared to the original, but it’s ultimately far more concerned with cramming in as much iconography from the Warner Bros. catalogue as possible. Some of the cameos are chuckle-worthy and have some logic to what they’ve been mashed-up with, but most are just the same tired jokes and references you’ve heard a million times before, whilst others are totally random and there simply because they can be; trust me, there are some truly bonkers appearances that will make your jaw drop in confusion. A New Legacy is often a film too shameless and surreal not to be entertaining on some morbid level, but the corporatisation of the entire production always scuppers every chance it has to be harmless dumb fun.

ODEON - Space Jam 2 – LeBron James' Space Jam: A New Legacy trailer  breakdown
LeBron James as himself and Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman) in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

It’s a well-worn adage that the film even remarks upon that athletes don’t tend to make good actors (and no, professional wrestlers don’t count, because they’re already essentially actors). Michael Jordan certainly didn’t break that streak in the original Space Jam, and whilst LeBron James showed promise with his debut performance in Trainwreck, A New Legacy proves that was likely just good direction and writing. James certainly doesn’t lack charisma and at least seems like he’s having a good time, but his performance often feels mechanical and simulated in much the same way athletes are in promos or adverts. On the opposite end, Don Cheadle goes full tilt as the villainous computer program Al-G Rhythm and ends up acting more like a cartoon than the actual Looney Tunes. It’s a performance lacking in any subtlety and seems almost bad on purpose, as if Cheadle signed on under the belief this was a FunnyOrDie skit and never realised his mistake. It’s a performance as incoherent and confusing as the character’s evil plan itself, which makes the first film’s “kidnap cartoon characters to be slaves at my theme park” scheme seem logical by comparison. Cedric Joe is decent by child actor standards as James’ neglected son Dom, but Sonequa Martin-Green and Khris Davis are practically afterthoughts as his wife and best friend respectively. There are a few other celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout and they end up giving some of the best performances in the movie, though none are quite as shocking and unreal as Bill Murray showing up out-of-nowhere in the fourth quarter.

One of the biggest criticisms of the original Space Jam was that it was unfaithful to a lot of the core tenants of the Looney Tunes, turning them from icons of slapstick animation into yet more pop culture-quoting mascots with bad 90s “attitude”. A New Legacy at first seems to rectify this, bringing the characters back to their roots and treating the characters with the respect they deserve. However, by the time the basketball game comes around, all that quickly goes out the window as we’re treated to the likes of Granny shouting modern slang or the Tunes engaging in a rap battle (yes, seriously, this is an extended sequence that comes out of nowhere and serves no real purpose). The voice acting is at least solid for the majority of the characters, even if it never quite matches the original vocals of Mel Blanc and company. There are again a few cameos from other cartoon characters (some who speak and other who don’t), but the only major celebrity member of the animated cast is Zendaya as the new voice of Lola Bunny. Whilst the filmmakers certainly made the right call dialling back the sexist fan-service nature of the character, it leaves Lola as something of an empty vessel with no looniness to speak of and little purpose in the plot other than to be the Tune Squad’s lone decent player besides James. Zendaya may be a delightful and talented actress, but she alone cannot turn such a nothing character into something memorable.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Reveals First Details About Don Cheadle's Villain
Cedric Joe as Dominic “Dom” James and Don Cheadle as Al-G Rhythm in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

There is a lot about the original Space Jam that’s dated badly, but none more so than its effects. For some it was their first experience of a live-action/animation hybrid, but one only has to look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit from eight years prior to see it was subpar even at the time. Visual effects have obviously improved massively in the twenty-five years since, and A New Legacy will likely have a longer technical lifespan that its forebearer, but aesthetically it’s even more of a treacly mess. The entire film is an over-saturated, high-contrast eye sore packed to the brim with endless references to Warner Bros. IP that only makes the film look like even more of a commercial. This might have been OK if this colour grading was a way to visually differentiate between the Server-Verse and reality, but even the scenes set in the real world have the same garish palette.

It’s nice to see a solid chunk of the film is entirely 2D animated, even if the animation itself is barely a grade above TV quality, but it at least retains the energy of the original cartoons. However, the Tunes’ 3D counterparts are far less pleasing and have little of the charm of their traditional designs; they would have been far better off sticking to 2D throughout. Another iconic aspect of the original was its soundtrack packed with hits from Seal, Coolio, Salt-N-Pepa and *groan followed by facepalm* R. Kelly that still define the 90s for many. In contrast, there isn’t a single track in New Legacy that stands out within the film, and the score from Kris Bowers isn’t particularly memorable either. Scrolling through the track list and its solid collection of artists, some of the songs are decent, but none of them are intrinsically connected to scenes from the movie in the way “Fly Like an Eagle” or “Hit ‘Em High” are in the original. I mean, c’mon, not even a horrible techno-rap cover of the original Quad City DJs theme or something? At least I might remember that.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is an irritating ode to corporate synergy and  profit margins
LeBron James with Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) and Daffy Duck (voiced by Eric Bauza) in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

If Space Jam is a cringey encapsulation of 90s Hollywood excess, A New Legacy is the 2021 remix that will be looked on by future generations with similar derision. Essentially a two-hour HBO Max commercial that makes Ready Player One look like classic literature, only those with the strongest of sweet tooths will find anything flavourful or nutritious here. There are brief flashes of promise that demonstrate the filmmakers were at least attempting to tell a story, but none of it matters when every frame is just product placement. It is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, and I’d almost recommend watching it simply so others can witness its baffling glory, but otherwise there isn’t anything of value here. Now please, kids of today: don’t fall in love with this movie like my generation did with the first one and, if you do, please don’t make me watch a third one another quarter-century from now.

FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/10

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Taylor Russell (Lost in Space), Logan Miller (Love, Simon), Indya Moore (Pose), Holland Roden (Teen Wolf), Thomas Cocquerel (In Like Flynn), Carlito Olivero (Step Up: High Water)

Director: Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key)

Writer: Will Honley (Bloodline) and Maria Melnik (Escape Room) & Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel (The Cloverfield Paradox)

Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes

Release Date: 16th July (US, UK)

The original Escape Room was the textbook definition of a serviceable movie. It did nothing egregiously badly (OK, the ADR in that film was truly awful), but it didn’t do anything spectacularly well either. It was just a mildly entertaining roller coaster horror that moved from one sequence to the next, slowly stacking up the body count as each new frightening puzzle played out. It followed in much the same formula as Final Destination or Saw, and now the sequel Tournament of Champions takes another cue from those franchises by making a sequel that is essentially the exact same but bigger. In this case that sometimes means better, sometimes means worse, and sometimes doesn’t mean much at all.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions': Official Poster Teases the New Rooms  We'll Be Entering This Summer - Bloody Disgusting

Tournament of Champions is an extremely quick and efficient movie, clocking in at under 90 minutes including both end credits and a lengthy “previously on…” prologue. There is nary a second wasted, getting into the meat and potatoes of the action much quicker thanks to expedience of now knowing the basic scenario, but like the first it has very little going on under the surface. Once again, it’s ultimately about the spectacle of the escape rooms, and this time the imagination and tension of these puzzles has certainly been improved. The film blows its wad a little early by placing its standout sequence (an electrifying dash through a high-voltage subway car) up front, but even the worst rooms here are better than most of those in the first; that upside-down bar sequence in the original still takes the cake though.

However, those expecting any kind of satisfying plot intrigue or subtextual depth aren’t going to find any here. Despite the first film’s ending promising more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Minos Corporation, the sequel reveals little we didn’t already know, and what revelations it does have just raise further questions. This all leads to an ending that seems clever at first glance, but on further thought basically makes nearly the entire story redundant and leaves our characters right back where they started. The best sequels add to their previous instalment and feel like a necessary continuation of the story, but unless the third film pulls something astonishing, it seems like you could easily skip from this one to that and basically not miss a thing. That…is not a good sign.

Escape Room- Tournament Of Champions - Film and TV Now
(from left to right) Taylor Russell as Zoey Davis, Logan Miller as Ben Miller, Holland Roden as Rachel Ellis, Indya Moore as Brianna Collier, and Thomas Cocquerel as Nathan in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021, d. Adam Robitel)

The characters in the first Escape Room served much the same purpose as they do in any horror movie: exaggerated, easily-distinguishable personalities to be picked off at the film’s convenience until only our heroes remain. Tournament of Champions comes in with an advantage in that we already know Zoey (Russell) and Ben (Miller), but they ultimately haven’t changed much since the first and don’t really develop further here either. If there’s any kind of character introspection, it’s that Zoey is incorruptible and determined to take down Minos no matter what, which may make her more noble but there are no stakes when there’s not even a consideration she may be tempted to give in.

Ben is at least less annoying and more competent here than he was in the first film, and it’s refreshing to see a male/female duo where a romance isn’t even suggested, but he serves little purpose other than to be Zoey’s cheerleader and a sounding board to her ramblings. Some of the new characters show promise, like Holland Roden (giving strong Clea DuVall circa The Faculty vibes) as a contestant with congenital insensitivity or Indya Moore as a traumatised influencer, but the film gives them and the other victims very little to do other than shout exposition. There is only one major character reveal I won’t spoil, and at first it shows a lot of promise in developing the story world, but it leads to very little other than a way of connect this film back to the original.

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021) Reviews and overview - MOVIES  and MANIA
Holland Roden as Rachel Ellis in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021, d. Adam Robitel)

It’s a hackneyed saying but it’s true: if you liked Escape Room, you’ll probably like Tournament of Champions. On the whole it’s an improvement on the original: the scenarios are larger and more terrifying, the characters are less irritating and more rounded, and it’s simply a much breezier and more consistently entertaining ride. For most of its runtime, it comes close to getting a mild recommendation; nothing worthwhile for ardent cinephiles, but certainly the kind of fun, unchallenging movie you’d watch with a few friends over some pizza on a chill weekend. Unfortunately, it stumbles right at the last hurdle with an ending that makes the whole enterprise feel like a placeholder for the sequel the first film promised. At this point, the series needs to either invest in a compelling narrative or up the ante further to insane heights, because its engine is going to bust soon from going so fast at such a low gear.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

THE FOREVER PURGE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ana de la Reguera (Army of the Dead), Tenoch Huerta (Sin nombre), Josh Lucas (Hulk), Cassidy Freeman (Longmire), Leven Rambin (Mank), Alejandro Edda (Narcos: Mexico), Will Patton (Armageddon)

Director: Everardo Gout (Days of Grace)

Writer: James DeMonaco (The Negotiator)

Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

Release Date: 2nd July (US), 16th July (UK)

The Purge movies are a curious franchise, in that it has lasted nearly a decade and wormed its way into the general pop vernacular of people who’ve never even seen them, and yet it’s hard to identify anyone who’d call themselves a diehard fan. The answer is easy once you understand the Blumhouse formula (basic but appealing concept + cheap as chips budget = high profits), creating a franchise that, despite the combined cost of the entire series being a third of the budget of one typical Hollywood blockbuster, has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Given this effective business model where even flops can easily become profitable, you’d think a new Purge film would be an easy sell even at a COVID-stricken box office. Unfortunately, The Forever Purge is perhaps a step too far for even this series, taking it in a direction that is somehow both too ridiculous and yet far too real to be enjoyed as cheap entertainment.  

The Forever Purge Gets First Official Poster

A lot of folk are immediately turned off by The Purge movies because of their grim premise, assuming they’re torture porn flicks that glorify American gun culture. On the contrary, they are actually amongst the most blatant and unsubtle films in regards to their left-wing political messaging, evoking much the same spirit as the John Carpenter films they so obviously take their inspiration from. The series hit its peak with the prequel The First Purge by using its platform to talk about African-American inequality, and with Forever Purge they’re now trying to do the same thing with the Latinx community whilst also escalating the franchise into new territory. However, the film bites off far more than it can chew and never really finds its footing.

Right from the off, it haphazardly retcons the ending of Election Year to the point of making it redundant, which will undoubtedly disappoint fans whilst leaving everyone else just a bit confused. The core premise of an extended purge seems interesting and does satisfyingly up the stakes, but it quickly robs the series of the rules and world-building that made it unique, and the story never bothers to cogently explain how or why this new never-ending massacre came to fruition. The political allegories in the prior films were never refined, but now the subtext is the supertext and its far too trite to buy even in a schlocky way. It’s far too forced and over-the-top to leave any real impact, and in light of the January 6th assault on the Capitol Building, this sort of imagery is perhaps in too poor taste for even a cheap B-movie. Sure, it may have been filmed back in 2019 and perhaps shows how prescient these movies can be, but it leaves the movie feeling less like escapism and more like scaremongering.

The Forever Purge lands mixed reviews
(from left to right) Tenoch Huerta as Juan, Ana de la Reguera as Adela, and Alejandro Edda as T.T. in THE FOREVER PURGE (2021, d. Everardo Gout)

The characters in the Purge movies have never been its highlight; the closest thing they’ve even had to a mascot was Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, and he was basically just an off-brand version of The Punisher. That said, whilst the heroes of The Forever Purge certainly aren’t the worst this series has had to offer, they are far from their best. Ana de la Reguera is easily the standout as Adela, balancing that fine line between charismatic and tough well as she did in Army of the Dead, but she constantly feels side-lined despite it seeming like she should be our protagonist. Much of the screen time is instead given to the tumultuous relationship between farmhand Juan (Huerta) and his boss’ son Dylan (Lucas), but it’s obvious before the carnage even starts how that subplot is going to play out.

This isn’t helped by Juan as a character being dull and uncharismatic, and beyond one decent one-liner Tenoch Huerta does little to elevate him (if the rumours that he’s been cast as Namor the Sub-Mariner prove true, call me trepidatious). Josh Lucas is fine if somewhat uninvested, Zahn McClarnon adds a little class as a Native American activist, and Will Patton makes the most of his role as Dylan’s father Caleb (especially a “f*ck you” monologue he gives to some Purgers), but that’s about it. All the rest of the characters are forgettable tag-alongs or OTT Purgers with the same psychotic ticks and tells you’d expect. I mean, one of them literally has a giant swastika tattooed on his cheek; how much more unsubtle can a movie get?

The Forever Purge' review: The fifth movie in the 'Purge' series trips over  its horror roots | CNN
Josh Lucas as Dylan Tucker in THE FOREVER PURGE (2021, d. Everardo Gout)

There’s not much else to say. It’s another Purge movie but on a slightly bigger scale, though it is impressive how much spectacle they’ve managed to pack in on a limited budget. There are moments in The Forever Purge when the city is under siege and our heroes are trying to wade through the carnage that evoked what I’d love to see in a Resident Evil movie (here’s looking at you, Welcome to Raccoon City), but that’s all this movie can really do: remind me of other things, including the other better movies in this series. It’s certainly not the worst installment because it at least takes full advantage of its premise (I think this is one of the few examples where the first film in a series is by far the worst), but it’s likely going to be the most forgettable; even as I write this review, the film itself is quickly dissipating from my memory banks. In a summer packed with both action and horror of all shapes and sizes, there are plenty of other films to recommend instead, and I’m sure Jason Blum will find some way to declare this film a success and greenlight another one anyway.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

BLACK WIDOW – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), Florence Pugh (Little Women), David Harbour (Stranger Things), O-T Fagbenle (The Handmaid’s Tale), Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), William Hurt (A History of Violence), Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Rachel Weisz (Disobedience)

Director: Cate Shortland (Lore)

Writer: Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong)

Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

Release Date: 7th July (UK),9th July (US, Disney+)

After Avengers: Endgame, many wondered if Marvel Studios had hit its saturation point. It is an industry juggernaut that seemingly cannot be stopped, and even as it reached its storytelling crescendo, plans for more movies were already well in motion and feelings of worry and fatigue continued to set in. Where could they possibly go now, and were audiences going to stay interested? So, from a certain perspective, the pandemic delaying the release of Black Widow and the rest of Phase Four was a positive, giving fans time to miss the MCU before coming back with a vengeance. A Black Widowsolo movie has been anticipated by fans for years as Marvel got its act together and started to value heroes who aren’t white men (good riddance, Ike Perlmutter), and in many ways the final product does feel like a film we should have seen five years ago. Black Widow will be a refreshing change of pace for audiences tired of the relentless CGI and constant continuity wrangling of recent MCU outings, opting for a more contemplative and character-driven narrative, but it’s also unfortunately the most disposable entry in the franchise since Thor: The Dark World.

Black Widow on Twitter: "Check out the official poster for Marvel Studios' # BlackWidow! Tickets and pre-orders available now. Experience it in 10 days  on July 9. https://t.co/cWeQKM9BPl… https://t.co/5K0Rp65ylE"

Neatly sliding into the time gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow mostly serves to fill in the backstory and character development that the other movies neglected to give the character before the end of the Infinity Saga. It is a slower and refreshingly straightforward story in comparison to its brethren, with a tonal approach most akin to the political intrigue of the Russo Brothers’ Captain America films, but even with its scanter number of action sequences it’s a pacy and consistently entertaining ride. This is easily Marvel’s darkest film yet, often evoking the grounded and morally ambiguous approach of the Bourne series or the Daniel Craig Bond films, which creates some tonal whiplash whenever the MCU elements come into play. Audiences may know this is set a universe where all kinds of sci-fi and fantasy concepts exist, but it does make its commentary on child soldiers and government indoctrination harder to take seriously when it also involves Communist superhumans and floating doom fortresses. The filmmakers seem aware of this thematic conflict and try to acknowledge it, most evident in a moment where Natasha uses her downtime to watch Moonraker, but more than ever the irreverent humour that Marvel constantly bakes into every movie seems forced. That’s not to say the jokes are bad (a running gag where Yelena calls out Natasha for her dramatic superhero poses is a nice bit of self-deprecation), but they feel more like the work of studio executives and punch-up writers slapped onto an otherwise solid spy thriller. The best elements of Black Widow are when it eschews the formula and forgets it’s a Marvel movie, and apart from incidental references to Civil War and the obligatory post-credits tease, it stands up well enough on its own.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021) - JumpCut Online
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova in BLACK WIDOW (2021, d. Cate Shortland)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may sell itself on its vast spectacle and interconnected storytelling, but what has kept audiences engaged in its world is its vast cast of characters and how they develop over each entry. Besides a brief appearance by William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross and a certain cameo in the post-credits scene, the only returning character in Black Widow is our titular heroine. Scarlett Johansson has always been a solid supporting player as Natasha Romanoff across her MCU appearances, and it’s especially great to have seen her evolve from her more questionable early appearances; one of this film’s best moments is when it makes light of a certain problematic character revelation of hers from Age of Ultron. The film certainly doesn’t shy away from depicted Natasha in a negative light, stripping away her superhero identity and reminding audiences she was raised as an assassin before becoming an Avenger, and the writing and Johansson do a solid job of exploring that dichotomy.

That said, Black Widow herself is easily one of the less interesting players in the film, especially in comparison to her ragtag Russian surrogate family. Florence Pugh is fantastic as Yelena Belova, crafting a character that mirrors Natasha but with a more damaged and pessimistic perspective. David Harbour is an absolute delight as Red Guardian, the washed-up Russian equivalent of Captain America, providing some wonderful comic relief but also some poignancy as he reflects on his past failings; I’d love to see this character interact with the likes of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. Rachel Weisz makes the most of her small role as conflicted scientist and Natasha’s mentor Melina Vostokoff, whilst O-T Fagbenle is a funny and grounding presence as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Rick Mason. The villains of Black Widow are easily its weakest element, simply adding an exaggerated Marvel sheen to existing Russian bad guy tropes. Ray Winstone does his best to shed his thick Cockney drawl as head honcho Dreykov and he has his menacing moments, but he’s a character whose villainy is far more talked about than seen; Natasha doesn’t even come face-to-face with him until the climax. Most disappointingly, especially to hardcore True Believers, is the handling of fan favourite Taskmaster. The film does a brilliant job of visually capturing the character, and its fun to watch their action sequences and pick out what moves they’ve copied from which heroes, but ultimately they are little more than a trumped-up sidekick. Their backstory and characterisation is also wildly different from the comics, which isn’t inherently bad and the new take does have a lot of interesting potential, but it’s a reveal that comes far too late and doesn’t get much chance to develop before the story ends.

Black Widow' Trailer Reveals First Look At David Harbour's Red Guardian
David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian in BLACK WIDOW (2021, d. Cate Shortland)

Right from its Se7en-esque opening credits set to a sombre cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it’s clear that director Cate Shortland comes from an independent background, and that eye is evident throughout Black Widow. There are some long stretches with no action and a lot of chit-chat, but when things do hit the fan the set pieces are refreshingly practical and not overstuffed with superhuman feats. That’s not to say the film is without moments of ridiculous spectacle, especially during the film’s climactic skydiving sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Fast & Furious flick. The staging and choreography is decent, though there is the occasional moment it degrades into close-up quick cuts, and the PG-13 rating is more evident than ever considering much more of the action is blade or gun-based than the typical Marvel flick. The costumes are certainly worth a shout-out, especially considering much of the cast are dressed in slightly varying catsuits, and Lorne Balfe’s score is a strong mix of typical superhero thrills with Russian-inspired choir, creating an operatic soundtrack that often instils similar chills to Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man score.

Black Widow Faces Off With Taskmaster In New Marvel Movie Image
Natasha Romanoff (right) faces off against Taskmaster (left) in BLACK WIDOW (2021, d. Cate Shortland)

Black Widow will certainly satisfy those who’ve been waiting anxiously for her solo outing, and it’s a solid if formulaic spy thriller in its own right, but it’s unlikely to become anyone’s favourite MCU adventure. When it has the confidence to try new ideas and dig a little deeper, it’s a welcome change of pace from the whizz-bang standard of the superhero genre, but it ultimately always defaults back into the Marvel formula and that’s when it’s at its worst. Only time will tell if the characters and lore introduced here will have much influence on the story going forward, but this feels less like the beginning of Phase Four and more like an addendum to the Infinity Saga; it adds a little flavour to the narrative, but it’s hardly necessary info. With Marvel Studios pumping out several movies and Disney+ shows a year now, it’s not like we’re ever bereft of new content for long, so hopefully the next few entries will give a better taste of where the universe is headed next.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

THE TOMORROW WAR – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Betty Gilpin (The Hunt), Sam Richardson (Veep), Edwin Hodge (The Purge), Keith Powers (Straight Outta Compton)

Director: Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie)

Writer: Zach Dean (24 Hours to Live)

Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes

Release Date: 2nd July (Amazon Prime)

Remember when films from streaming companies were mostly the kinds of things mainstream Hollywood was too disinterested in making these days? They were a haven for the lost art of mid-tier movies; frothy romantic comedies, low-budget thrillers, contemplative sci-fi, teen dramas and the like. Now, bolstered by their stuffed pockets and studios looking to sell as the effects of COVID-19 continue to hound the industry, streaming services are now distributing the expensive, high-concept blockbusters they used to be competing against. The Tomorrow War is the third major 2021 release Paramount has sold to Amazon (after Coming 2 America and Without Remorse) and, with a budget of around $200 million, it’s easily the biggest and riskiest. This is usually the kind of movie that needs a cinematic release to even attempt to be profitable; the kind studios have generally held onto over the pandemic. The fact Paramount sold it essentially at cost value is also telling and, having now watched it, there seems to be a common trait amongst the movies they’re flogging to Amazon: they’re all not very good.

Judging movies from a hypercritical, CinemaSins-style perspective is not only grating but antithetical to having fun, especially when it comes to movies taking place in heightened realities. That said, that kind of criticism is hard not to fall into when the premise is so fundamentally flawed, and the plot of The Tomorrow War has one of those. The concept of soldiers being sent hurtling through time to fight an alien invasion in the future sounds cool, but it immediately raises basic questions about logic and strategy. Why send so many people into the future to fight an insurmountable war rather than spending the intervening thirty years preparing to stop the attack before it happens? Why are we just sending random civilians regardless of their background to be inevitable cannon fodder when it’s clear a military victory is unlikely without a scientific solution? If the future is practically incapable of bringing this scientific solution to fruition, why aren’t we sending scientists from both time periods back and forth to take advantage of each other’s knowledge and resources? The film does answer some questions, but plenty of others have either been ignored or perhaps not even noticed by the filmmakers themselves. I don’t like to nitpick story logic and write movies off because of plot holes, but this is a film built on unstable ground and it simply isn’t smart or nimble enough to escape the obvious pitfalls. On that basis alone, I fundamentally cannot recommend The Tomorrow War.

This is a shame, because it has plenty of redeeming qualities. The themes of its story are at least relevant and interesting, mainly in how it explores trauma, mental health, and fractured relationships. Whilst it remains focused on a small group of characters, the world-building does a decent job of showing the global effect of this war in both the present and future, which feels especially relevant in today’s pandemic climate. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the film also has a decent sense of humour that keeps the action fun and breezy; director Chris McKay’s background in animation is especially present in these moments. The problem comes in mixes these two halves, flitting tones from scene to scene in a way that makes it hard to fully invest in the film’s world, and this then flows into the film’s pacing and structural unevenness. There is a solid 90-minute sci-fi actioner in here that seems like it’s building to a natural conclusion, but then it keeps going and does essentially a whole truncated sequel as its actual climax. The third act radically changes tone and feel, starting out with a contemplative eeriness more akin to Prometheus before reaching a quip-filled final showdown that’s a lot of dumb fun but seems like it would be more fitting in a Fast & Furious flick. None of these approaches are inherently wrong and could be woven together, but the final product is more of a hodgepodge of these ideas rathe than a smooth blend.

The Tomorrow War Review | Movie - Empire
(from left to right) Alexis Louder as Diablo, Chris Pratt as Dan Forrester, Edwin Hodge as Dorian and Sam Richardson as Charlie in THE TOMORROW WAR (2021, d. Chris McKay)

Putting aside his problematic personal beliefs, Chris Pratt is a likable and charming actor, but he’s only ever as good as the material he’s working with. Think about it: he’s great as a part of Parks & Recreation, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, but does his presence do anything to elevate the overall quality of Passengers or the Jurassic World movies? At the start of his rise to stardom, Pratt was a breath of fresh air to the samey faces of typical Hollywood leads, but now he’s just another one of them and his presence in The Tomorrow War could have easily been fulfilled by any number of comparable actors. He’s funny and affable, and he pulls off the movie’s emotional moments surprisingly well, but Pratt does little to make him more than just another everyman protagonist. Yvonne Strahovski is pretty good as Pratt’s CO in the future war and they form a unique and emotionally strained relationship, though she arrives too late and leaves too early in the story for her impact to really land. J.K. Simmons and Betty Gilpin have some great moments as Pratt’s father and wife respectively, and Edwin Hodge makes the most of his role as an experienced solider with a death wish, but none of them are in the story long enough. The big standout of the whole picture is Sam Richardson as the reluctant nerdy draftee Charlie, who brings a human quality missing from most of the proceedings and some of the film’s best comedic touches. He ultimately does what Pratt fails to do: he takes a basic stock character and turns them into someone unique and memorable.

On a spectacle level, The Tomorrow War shows off its fat wallet and it’s a shame it isn’t getting any kind of theatrical release to show it all off. Its apocalyptic future world is still the expected landscape of ruined buildings and ramshackle military bases, but it has at least gone to the effort of crafting a cool and original concept for its alien menace. These creatures, referred to as Whitespikes, avoid the usual insectoid inspiration and are more monstrous and eclectic in their design, mixing in elements from all over the animal kingdom that at first look clashing but quickly seems natural. The film really picks up anytime they are on screen, and the story only hints at a wider mythology for these creatures that would be interesting to explore in more stories. That said, as cool as the Whitespikes are, much of the actual action is pretty staid. Most of it is just a lot of Pratt and co running and shooting, running and shooting, running and shooting, an explosion, then more running and shooting. The only time the action comes alive and does something different are in two moments: the in media res opening showing Pratt’s time jump going horribly wrong, and the aforementioned finale. It also feels majorly hampered by its PG-13 rating and, though it tries to get around violence rules by making the alien blood green, the cinematography and editing hamper all of the interesting gory moments to the point they lack any real impact.

The Tomorrow War' movie review: Back to the '90s with Chris Pratt - The  Hindu
Chriss Pratt as Dan Forrester and Yvonne Strahovski as Romeo Command in THE TOMORROW WAR (2021, d. Chris McKay)

The Tomorrow War has all of the elements it needs to be a fun and original Hollywood blockbuster, but it lacks the skill and confidence to pull most of it off. The illogical nature of its core premise is enough to sink it on its own, but smart filmmakers could have found a way around those issues and turned it into something smart as well as entertaining, but it has no interest in answering those questions. So many times it comes close to being able to overcome its flaws and at least qualify as dumb summer fun, but it never does and that ultimately makes for a very frustrating and confusing watch. If nothing else, it works as a showreel for Chris McKay to move more into live-action filmmaking, but hopefully next time he finds a script that stands up to more scrutiny.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

F9 (FAST & FURIOUS 9) – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Vin Diesel (Riddick), Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar), Tyrese Gibson (Transformers), Chris “Ludacris” Bridges (Crash), John Cena (Blockers), Jordana Brewster (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning), Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones), Sung Kang (Better Luck Tomorrow), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York), Charlize Theron (The Old Guard)

Director: Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond)

Writer: Daniel Casey (Kin) & Justin Lin

Runtime: 2 hours 25 minutes

Release Date: 24th June (UK),25th June (US)

Can you believe this year marks the twentieth anniversary of The Fast and the Furious? All this time later, the franchise is somehow simultaneously unrecognisable and yet, deep in its heart, very much the same. It’s even harder to believe its engine is still running when its first few sequels weren’t so well-received; heck, Tokyo Drift nearly went straight-to-video. After some tune-ups and the return of the core cast, the franchise is now bigger than ever and is showing no sign of stopping soon, and many attribute the series’ recovery and continued success to director Justin Lin. It was under his tenure that Fast & Furious evolved from simple car-racing pictures into heightened action bonanzas, and every director to helm an entry since owes so much to his work. Now eight years after his last ride, Lin returns to living life a quarter-mile at a time with F9, a film that is well aware of the legacy trodden in the dirt track behind it. The result is a celebration of excess that will certainly entertain diehard fans, but is also easily the most insular and self-congratulatory Fast film yet.

F9: The Fast Saga (2021) - IMDb

Many have compared the winding and twist-filled narrative of the Fast & Furious sage to a soap opera, and the comparisons are certainly apt. These are stories packed with sudden betrayals, characters returning from the dead, overcomplicated retcons and leaps in logic only the most forgiving of viewers could accept unironically. The filmmakers are keenly aware of this on some level, bringing in a lot of self-deprecating humour and knowing winks, and it has served them well up until now. That said, F9 leans so heavily on its intricate lore to the point it is practically impenetrable to anyone who isn’t already invested in the series. This ninth instalment (tenth, counting spin-off Hobbs & Shaw) is a sprawling epic packed with everything good and bad about the franchise you’d expect, with new bells & whistles on top of that to boot. It’s got world-dominating supervillains, futuristic sci-fi tech, characters improbably surviving death-defying stunts, and a boatload of flashbacks to help tie together the web of plot threads even tighter. A good chunk of F9 is basically a prequel to flesh out the backstory of the Toretto family, and these moments are the only times it ever attempts to emulate the more grounded world of the first movie.

Otherwise, this is yet another entry stretching to find new and interesting sharks to jump and, whilst it is still incredibly entertaining to watch whether you’re actually invested or just along for the ride, it’s certainly not going to please every fan. It’s a film that is trying to bite off more than it can chew, with enough ideas to pack three movies and not enough time to fully give any of them justice. That said, even through all the ridiculousness, it definitely recaptures the heart and connection that made the other Lin entries special, and was especially lacking in The Fate of the Furious. I can’t recommend anyone start their Fast & Furious experience with this film, and I imagine trying to do so would be like reading only the footnotes of a Tolkien novel, but if you like this flavour of batshit insanity then it’s absolutely worth a watch.

F9' to Open in China in May, More Than a Month Ahead of North America
Vin Diesal as Dominic Toretto and Michelle Rodriguez as Letty Ortiz in F9 (2021, d. Justin Lin)

The pantheon of characters who have appeared in this franchise is so vast that you need a spreadsheet to keep track of who’s who and who knows who’s who. Of course, Vin Diesel once again takes centre stage as Dominic Toretto, but for the first time in a long while this focus on him doesn’t feel so forced. The relationship between Dom and his estranged brother is the real thrust of the film, both narratively and emotionally, and his arc throughout is a necessary bit of character development that is easily the best journey for Dom since the first movie. John Cena as Jakob Toretto does a solid job and his rivalry with Diesel does have sparks, but the pair don’t get enough screen time together or a fully satisfying physical showdown. Cena’s presence is also somewhat undercut by sharing the villain seat with Thue Ersted Rasmussen as wealthy benefactor Otto, a shallow and irksome character whose only real purpose is to make Jakob look less detestable. The rest of Dom’s crew deliver what you expect at this point: Michelle Rodriguez is as stoic and badass as ever, Tyrese and Ludacris constantly exchange baffling banter, and it’s great to see Nathalie Emmanuel gets in more on the action this time.

Jordana Brewster is back as Mia Toretto and gets a lot more to do here than she did in her last few appearances, though the film fails to play up her mediating relationship between Dom and Jakob. There are a lot of other returning players from across the series, but they’re all mostly cameos or perfunctory appearances, the most frustrating of these is Charlize Theron’s return as Cipher; she’s a relatively integral part of the story, but she’s only on-screen for five minutes tops. Of course, the big return folks have been anticipating is Sung Kang as fan favourite Han, but his appearance is easily the film’s biggest let-down. They spend a lot of time building to him, then more explaining how he’s even back…and then he doesn’t really do anything. His appearance here only serves to lay the groundwork for the #JusticeForHan the fans have been clamouring for, and in bringing him back they’ve had to make the biggest leaps in retroactive logic they’ve made; the film itself even compares the move to literal magic. Hopefully the payoff to this development is worth it, and Kang is as charismatic as ever in the role, but there had to be a more elegant way to bring him back.

Fast and Furious 9 trailer confirms major fan theory as supercars reach  ridiculous new heights with ROCKETS
Vin Diesel as Dominc Toretto and John Cena as Jakob Toretto in F9 (2021, d. Justin Lin)

Whilst F9’s bending of narrative is harder to forgive, the series has had a pass when it comes to realistic car physics for at least a decade, and that childlike sense of fun has led to some of the most ridiculously fun action sequences in recent film history. The ninth film is full of sumptuous thrill rides both automotive and on-foot and, whilst none of them are quite as iconic as those in Fast Five through Furious 7, they all bring sometimes new to the table. Whether it be driving through minefields, swinging across canyons or wrecking shop with high-powered magnets, F9 really knows how to put the bust in blockbuster. Even some of the more traditional set pieces feel fresh by upping the scale, like the standout sequence in Edinburgh as a thrilling rooftop chase weaves and collides with a truck ploughing through traffic (though as someone who’s lived in the Scottish capital, they mess up the city’s geography badly). The action’s only real downside is that it peaks too early, with the climax offering very little that the film or its predecessors have done better; there is one big twist to the final sequence that has ludicrous potential, but it’s far too small a part of the overall picture. As far as the rest of the technical aspects go, it’s what you’d expect from the series: bright and fluid cinematography, gorgeous locales, sound design packed with engine revs and gunfire, and a banging soundtrack full of rap, reggae and electronica.

Fast and Furious 9 director assures fans Han's return makes sense
Sung Kang as Han Lue and Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce in F9 (2021, d. Justin Lin)

F9 is a film that certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do, but there’s undeniably going to be some audiences who still won’t accept it. Only time will tell, but I suspect this will end up being one of the most divisive entries in the franchise. On the one hand, it delivers a satisfying character journey for Dom and brings together a lot of the disparate corners of the series into a massive celebration of itself. However, it is so self-indulgent and high on its own supply that it is nigh unpalatable to an uninformed audience; even the most continuity-obsessed Marvel movies aren’t this incomprehensible without context. If you’re someone who knows and loves this franchise back to front, warts and all, you’re probably going to have a fun time no matter what. If you’re a more casual viewer who only remembers the gist of each movie, I’d suggest rewatching a few of them and reading up on the wiki just so you can remember your Sean Boswells from your Owen Shaws. Fast & Furious has now basically locked itself into a never-ending game of one-upmanship, and there will eventually come a time when the films hit a ceiling and can’t top itself anymore. Hopefully, they will turn off the engines and retire before it reaches that point, but they are skating so close to that line already.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

LUCA – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Jacob Tremblay (Room), Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!), Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan (Away We Go)

Director: Enrico Casarosa (La Luna)

Writers: Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) & Mike Jones (Soul)

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 18th June (Disney+)

Pixar can’t seem to catch a break lately when it comes to cinemas. First Onward bombed and saw its theatrical run cut short due to COVID-19, and then Soul never even saw a general cinema release in most countries and debuted instead on Disney+. Now despite cinemas across the world opening up and having done dual theatrical/PVOD releases for films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella, Disney has once again opted for Pixar’s latest to skip theatres and debut it as an exclusive on their streaming platform. Whilst a treat for Disney+ users and those who don’t feel ready to head back to cinemas, it is frankly baffling that Luca isn’t getting any major theatrical distribution in most markets. Beyond excuses about COVID restrictions and needing more exclusive content to boost subscriptions, could there be another reason why this filmhas been singled out as the exception in Disney’s new release strategy? Maybe, but if it has anything to do with the perceived quality of the film, they’d be wrong as Luca is an adorable and heartwarming coming-of-age fable that I would have loved to experience on the big screen.

New Pixar “Luca” Poster Released | What's On Disney Plus

Within its first few minutes, it’s clear that Luca is a slightly different beast to most of Pixar’s output. It certainly has a similar attention to detail, sense of humour and emotional resonance, but it is a noticeably smaller and more intimate film than anything they’ve made in years. The plot and tone are instead far more reminiscent of Japanese animated films; in fact, the best way to sum up the film is as a mash-up of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Wolf Children. The fantastical elements are very downplayed, the story mostly takes place in and around a small town, and there’s no evil mastermind or world-ending threat at the climax. The movie is really as simple as two young boys bonding over the course of a summer, and the whole shapeshifting sea creature business is only there for conflict and subtext.

Luca isn’t the most ground-breaking tale thematically, with familiar messages about being true to yourself and not living in fear of judgement, but it’s handled with tact and doesn’t try to make it too specific an allegory. It’s refreshing to see an American children’s film take such a relaxed and down-to-earth approach instead of yet another Campbellian adventure story or genre pastiche and, whilst it clearly takes influence from the likes of Hayao Miyazaki (I mean, the film’s setting is a blatant reference to Porco Rosso), it doesn’t come off like a poor Western imitation. Its lower stakes, however, doesn’t mean the movie is slow or overly contemplative. On the contrary, the whole film breezes by in less than ninety minutes excluding credits and, if anything, the quick pacing leads to certain story and character beats feeling a little rushed. It’s honestly such a charming film with interesting characters and a gorgeous world that I wouldn’t have minded if it slowed down more, if only to soak it in and enjoy its chill atmosphere a little while longer.

Luca Review: Pixar Movie Is an Ode to Friendship — and Vespas | NDTV  Gadgets 360
Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) in LUCA (2021, d. Enrico Casarosa)

Pixar have rarely ever put a huge emphasis on celebrity stunt casting, instead simply trying to find the best actors for the roles whether they be stars or not, and that certainly still tracks in Luca. The roles of Luca and Alberto feel like they were tailor-made to fit Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer, as they excel beyond words as our wide-eyed, trepidatious protagonist and his boastful new friend respectively. Grazer in particular does tremendously, managing to convey so much about Alberto’s insecurities and bravado through little vocal ticks and odd inflections; these are the kind of details you usually only get out of career voice actors. Emma Berman is adorable as the plucky go-getter Giulia, Saviero Raimondo balances the line between threatening and pathetic to great comedic effect as local bully Ercole, Marco Barricelli does a lot with very little as Giulia’s gruff but doting father Massimo, and even Sacha Baron Cohen gets in a lot of laughs in his brief turn as the unnerving Uncle Ugo. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan are fun too as Luca’s bickering parents and their subplot is hilarious at moments, but in comparison to the Studio Ghibli style of the rest of the movie, their scenes do feel like they’ve come from a more typical American kids movie. The cast is rounded out by a lot of fun background characters, most of whom have little to no dialogue, which helps the Portorosso feel much more like a living, breathing place.

Whilst Pixar certainly has a distinctive house look that most of their films stick to, it’s great whenever they stretch out and experiment a little. Luca is one of the most distinctive-looking films the studio has ever made, adopting a more exaggerated animation style and a watercolour palette that fits perfectly with the seaside setting of the film. The design of the sea monsters and their underwater world has some cool distinctive features, like the way the creatures shift forms or the translucent skin of Uncle Ugo’s anglerfish-inspired look, but the most jaw-dropping moments actually come from its human environments. The town of Portorosso is wonderfully realised and looks gorgeous in every frame, bringing to life the Italian Riviera in an exaggerated but authentic way; it certainly made me want to go visit. This is further accentuated by the film’s music, with Dan Romer’s score blending Italian-inspired guitar with familiar Pixar whimsy whilst incorporating tunes from a wide variety of Italian rock, pop and opera. It’s just utterly charming from start to finish, and the cosy, friendly ambiance of the movie just made it that much easier to relax while watching it.

LUCA Trailer Teases Pixar's Italian-Set Mythical Tale (VIDEO/IMAGES) – I  Can't Unsee That Movie: film news and reviews by Jeff Huston
(from left to right) Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman), Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) in LUCA (2021, d. Enrico Casarosa)

Luca is far from the best film Pixar has ever made, but it’s a welcome breath of fresh air for the studio and Western animation in general. Whilst fans of Studio Ghibli and its ilk won’t see anything too new here, it’s still fantastic to see a mainstream animated movie have some modesty and put atmosphere and theme front and centre. That said, it’s still colourful and exciting enough to entertain the youngest audiences, and I hope it inspires more families to look beyond the major American studios and pick up the gorgeous array of international films that inspired it. The summer movie season is so often dominated by explosive blockbusters, but Luca feels like a movie made for the summer itself: chilling out, having fun in the sun, and enjoying the little things. I only wish I could have experienced it like most summer movies and seen in it in an actual cinema.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

IN THE HEIGHTS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton), Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (Vida), Olga Merediz (The Place Beyond the Pines), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Flawless), Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs The Bronx), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black), Jimmy Smits (Rogue One)

Director: John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)

Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes

Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes

Release Date: 11th June (US, HBO Max), 18th June (UK)

Just when you think a genre might be on its last legs, it comes back swinging. The 2021 release schedule is packed with musicals from now until the end of the year: Everbody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick…Boom!, Encanto, West Side Story, and probably a few more I’m forgetting. In the Heights is certainly one of the most anticipated of the slate and, whilst the show certainly has its loyal fans, to most it’s still “that other show Lin-Manuel Miranda made before Hamilton”. A film adaptation has been in the works for over a decade, but only truly got off the ground in the wake of Miranda’s catapult to superstardom, and is now finally here after a year’s delay due to a certain pandemic. Luckily, even though this is a story first told sixteen years ago, In the Heights feels more vibrant and relevant than ever as the first truly great blockbuster of 2021.

In the Heights (2021) - IMDb

Taking influence from the classic American musicals of the mid-twentieth century, In the Heights tells a relatable story with familiar themes of love, family and trying to make dreams come true, but through the specific lens of modern working-class Latinx and Black New Yorkers. Whilst there have been some major structural changes to the story from the stage version, as well as some updates and additions to make it timelier, it retains its essence and finds a perfect balance between a faithful adaptation and a movie in its own right. There are occasionally odd kinks and artifacts from the translation process, but never in a way that completely takes you out of the experience, with the pacing flowing so naturally that its lengthy runtime never feels like a problem. More than any other stage musical adaptation, it retains the energy and infectiousness of a live performance to the point it’s easy to forget that it’s a movie; at the end of the opening number, I nearly applauded and cheered before I remembered where I was. It may not be quite the same with limited screen capacities, and US viewers can easily watch it at home, but this is a movie that really needs to be seen in a cinema for the full effect. Hopefully, one day very soon, packed theatres can enjoy this film the way it feels like it should be.

In the Heights review: Lin-Manuel Miranda's vibrant musical dazzles on  screen | EW.com
(from left to right) Noah Catala as Graffiti Pete, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Corey Hawkins as Benny, and Anthony Ramos and Usnavi in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

If you’ve ever had to sit through the average community theatre production, you’ll know that even the greatest musicals ever written are only as good as the actors performing in them, and thankfully In the Heights features an incredible cast packed with faces familiar, forgotten and fresh. I could just go on and on listing every cast member and using every superlative I know to describe how much I love them all, so I’ll try and stick to the major standouts. Anthony Ramos has been a rising star in supporting roles on stage and screen lately, but here as lead Usnavi he truly gets his chance to shine and captivates from the moment he steps onto screen. He is everything you want from a musical lead and more, and I hope Hollywood finally starts giving him the shots he deserves. Leslie Grace is a revelation as Nina in her feature film debut, and the way they’ve updated her storyline to reflect modern conversations about tokenism and microaggressions really gives her character extra pathos.

Jimmy Smits has never been better than here as Nina’s demanding father Kevin, and Daphne Rubin-Vega shows she absolutely still has it playing exuberant salon owner Daniela. Gregory Diaz IV is an incredibly charming young talent as Yusnavi’s cheeky cousin Sonny, and the extra depth afforded to his character here improves both his and Yusnavi’s storylines. However, the real show-stealer is Olga Merediz as neighbourhood matriarch Abuela Claudia. The only performer from the original Broadway show to reprise their role (though several other cast members return in smaller parts), it’s easy to fall in love with her like the entire cast has and her big tear-jerking number “Paciencia y Fe” is made that much better by her wonderful performance.

Visiting In the Heights – secrets we learned on the set of the upcoming  film | WhatsOnStage
(from left to right) Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Stephanie Beatriz as Carla, Leslie Grace as Nina, Dascha Polanco as Cuca, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

Watching In The Heights knowing the rest of his career, it’s easy to see the seeds planted here that sprouted into Miranda’s signature musical style, and all of the songs have that same infectious rhythm and masterful lyrical flow. It’s hard to really pick favourites because they all the numbers weave together so well that the whole production feels like one big song, but the opening title number, “96,000”, the aforementioned “Paciencia y Fe”, and “Carnaval del Barrio” are certainly the ones I’ll be playing over and over again on Spotify. Making these numbers truly shine in cinematic form is the fantastic direction and choreography, which brings to the screen that certain magic you usually only find in a live performance. Whilst this is his first musical, director Jon M. Chu’s experience with the Step Up franchise and concert films serve him well as he brings an authenticity rarely seen in stage musical adaptations; I personally now can’t wait to see how his adaptation of Wicked turns out. That same passion and flair then permeates the film’s entire aesthetic, bringing Washington Heights to life with a technicolour sheen whilst still capturing its authentic grit. The costumes, the sets, the editing, even the visual effects when the film breaks diegesis; all feel like extensions of Broadway style and tricks simply taking advantage of what cinema can do, rather than filmmakers attempting to force cinematic ideas on a show that wasn’t written for the screen.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

After the disaster that was Cats, a lot of people began wondering whether turning Broadway shows into movies was worth it anymore; even the best ones could never really capture the genuineness of the original production. After watching In the Heights,it’s easy to see where all those other adaptations have gotten it wrong, and in doing so has delivered the best Broadway adaptation in decades. This is a movie that not only loves the original show, but understands why it was so special and knows exactly what to keep, what to change, what to expand upon, and what to drop; given the screenplay was written by the original playwright, that isn’t too surprising. It’s a movie I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, but musical theatre fanatics I think are going to be especially rabid for it. It’s going to instil in its audience a sweeping joy much like The Greatest Showman did, but it thankfully doesn’t have that fridge logic moment where it all falls apart when you think about it too much. In the Heights is a movie that not only stays with you after immediately after watching it, but will likely do so for years and years to come. If you’ve been waiting for a reason to return to your local cinema post-lockdown, this is the perfect movie to come back to. Bring your friends, bring your favourite snacks and beverages, and be ready to have a new soundtrack to play on repeat this summer.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10