MORTAL KOMBAT – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Lewis Tan (Wu Assassins), Jessica McNamee (The Meg), Josh Lawson (House of Lies), Tadanobu Hosano (Thor), Mehcad Brooks (Supergirl), Ludi Lin (Power Rangers), Chin Han (The Dark Knight), Joe Taslim (The Raid), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine)

Director: Simon McQuoid

Writers: Greg Russo and Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984)

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 23rd April (US/HBO Max), 6th May (UK/PVOD)

The phrase “there’s no such thing as a good video game movie” generally holds water, but an exception to many is 1995’s adaptation of the arcade classic that introduced us to fatalities, digitized graphics and the Entertainment Software Rating Board: Mortal Kombat. Sure, the story was formulaic, the dialogue was cheesy, and it lacked the trademark gore of the franchise, yet it had enough charm and gnarly 90s techno to gain affection in the hearts of fans everywhere (its 1997 sequel, Annihilation, however…has few admirers for good reason). Even so, Mortal Kombat has for ages been begging for a cinematic reboot to fully capture the totality of the series: more characters, more special moves, more gruesome finishing blows. Those wishes have finally been answered in 2021’s Mortal Kombat and, whilst it’s not a flawless victory, it delivers enough B-movie fun to satiate the bloodthirsty.

Mortal Kombat (2021) - Movie Posters (1 of 3)

Rather than following the tournament structure of the early games or the first movie, the new Mortal Kombat spends most of its running time building the world and developing its heroes and villains. This approach leaves the film feeling like an overlong prologue, spending its time between fights mostly spouting exposition about tournament rules and character backstories. It places the film in a bit of an awkward middle ground, being neither detailed enough to please fans nor simple enough for laymen to invest in. The movie does get to explore avenues previous adaptations have often looked over, like the rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero or the camaraderie of Sonya and Jax, but to do so the basic tenets of storytelling are often warped from the pressure of cramming so much in with less than two hours.

After a compelling cold open, the film’s first act seemingly swallows up most of the remaining runtime, with much of the story taking place in one location as the characters train and banter for nearly an hour. All of this build-up and anticipation does lead to a pretty satisfying finale that delivers on much of what the film promises, but it still does feel like the filmmakers are holding a lot back for a sequel they are far too confident they’ll get to make. Ultimately however, the film holds up in spite of all this simply because it captures the spirit and heart of the games so well. It has its grandiose mythology, its twisted sense of humour, its brazen self-awareness and, above all, its commitment to fun above all else. If you can’t get on board with that, that’s more than understandable but, for better and worse, this is undeniably a Mortal Kombat movie made by and for Mortal Kombat fans.

REVIEW: MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) | ManlyMovie
(from left to right) Ludi Lin as Liu Kang and Max Huang as Kung Lao in MORTAL KOMBAT (2021, d. Simon McQuoid)

Much like the original film, what carries the story is the charm of its characters, and Mortal Kombat delivers a healthy dose of fan favourites, obscure deep cuts and, most surprisingly of all, a brand-new challenger in the form of our protagonist. Lewis Tan does a commendable job as Cole Young, creating a character with charisma and relatability in spite of his generic backstory and motivations. He is at first too grounded compared to his more colourful supporting cast, leading him to sometimes get lost in the shuffle, yet by the climax he comes into his own and narrowly edges himself a satisfying arc. I doubt he’s going to become anyone’s favourite character, but if Cole ever becomes playable in the games, I’d certainly give him a few rounds. I mean, he’s certainly got more character and a unique move set compared to the countless forgettable fighters the series has had in its near-thirty-year history.

Jessica McNamee nails Sonya Blade’s terse yet noble personality, though she is unfortunately saddled with not only a lot of expository dialogue, but also a problematic subplot about her worthiness to compete in the tournament. Being the only female character in the film with any development, it’s pretty disappointing to see her arc boil down to a poorly-concealed glass ceiling metaphor. Mehcad Brooks fares better as Jax, capturing both his bravado and his insecurities, though he is out of commission for much of the second act. It seems odd at first to place Liu Kang, the usual protagonist of the series, in a supporting role but this allows the film to poke fun at the character’s stoicism without turning him into a joke, and Ludi Lin does well balancing that line. Whilst Max Huang does get in some great moments as Kung Lao, he enters the film quite late and leaves pretty quickly, and Tadanobu Asano’s po-faced performance as Raiden has neither the grandiosity of the game character nor the humour of Christopher Lambert’s 1995 interpretation.

Movie Review: “Mortal Kombat,” One More Time | Movie Nation
(from left to right) Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion and Joe Taslim as Bi-Han/Sub-Zero in MORTAL KOMBAT (2021, d. Simon McQuoid)

Though their screen time together is mostly relegated to the bookends of the film, Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim make for a great combo as Scorpion and Sub-Zero, and the way the film uses the language barrier between them to add conflict is a unique touch that adds a little authenticity. Chin Han does a great job of matching the bravado and intimidating presence of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s performance as Shang Tsung, but he’s in the film far too sporadically to have a real impact. Much of the rest of the rogue’s gallery is made up of disposable jobbers with barely a handful of lines between them, with only Kabal getting much personality or connection to the other fighters. Most disappointingly, fan favourite Mileena is relegated to this henchman role and is sapped of not only her origins but her unsettling personality too; if they weren’t going to do her justice, they should have saved her for the sequel and thrown in another throwaway villain like Tanya or Ashrah. With all that said, the film’s big secret weapon is Josh Lawson’s hilarious performance as Kano. As soon as he’s introduced, the movie drastically improves as the Australian backstabber quips his way through the rest of the film and threatens to steal the whole production. He is the movie’s Jack Sparrow, and if anyone in the film deserves to become a breakout star, Lawson should.

If you came to Mortal Kombat looking for blood, you are going to find it and much more. Limbs are severed, skulls are split, hearts are ripped out, people are burnt alive and frozen to death; everything an edgelord would love and a conservative parent would hate. Unfortunately, punches are pulled in the most literal sense, because the fights are surprisingly the film’s biggest weakness. Though the 1995 version was hardly a Bruce Lee masterpiece, it understood how to not only stage its brawls, it knew how to edit them. Mortal Kombat blatantly suffers from the pervasive Hollywood problem of not just having too many cuts, but placing them in a way that robs the fights of their full impact. The choreography is perfectly fine when it’s comprehendible, working in plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle references to moves from the games, but it desperately needed someone like Chad Stahelski to step in and supervise these sequences.

Mortal Kombat's Goro Is 'Extremely Integral' to the Film's Story
(from left to right) Angus Sampson as Goro and Lewis Tan as Cole Young in MORTAL KOMBAT (2021, d. Simon McQuoid)

It’s a massive shame, because the film otherwise does a fantastic job of capturing the aesthetic of the games. Some of the locations are bland, with most scenes in Outworld looking like it was shot in the same quarry as every other episode of Doctor Who, but those pulled right out of the games are startingly accurate and it’s great to see a lot of on-location filming as opposed to green screen sets. The visual effects are generally pretty solid, especially on fully CG characters like Reptile and Goro, but there is only so much one can do to make these insane character designs feel tangible. The cinematography captures some gorgeous moments, the costumes strike a great balance between being source material-accurate and being stagey, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is a suitable mix of Zimmer-inspired bombast and techno-infused modernity that works in that classic “Techno Syndrome” beat in every chance it gets.

Fans love the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie because it’s dumb fun, and its 2021 successor continues in that fashion. Its greatest flaws lie more in trying to do too much rather than not trying enough, which is certainly the more admirable way to fail, but what it gets right more than makes up for those shortcomings. More than any previous video game adaptation, this captures not only the look of the game but the feeling you get when playing it: giddy, excited, and wincing at all the right moments. The Mortal Kombat games never strived to be high entertainment, and this film shouldn’t be held to a different standard just because of the change in medium; you don’t denigrate a food truck burger simply because it’s not a porterhouse steak. This movie is a food truck burger, and judging it as such, it’s a pretty damn good one that needs less mayo and a little more time on the fryer. If you’re not a fan of the games, knock a point off my score if you want. Otherwise, strap in and try not to puke.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

WITHOUT REMORSE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Jamie Bell (Rocketman), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim), Bret Gelman (Stranger Things), Colman Domingo (Selma), Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3)

Director: Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado [AKA Sicario 2: Soldado])

Writers: Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) and Will Staples (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3)

Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes

Release Date: 30th April (Amazon Prime)

Every adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Ryanverse so far has only focused on the eponymous Jack Ryan, but the series has had several protagonists over the years and few more notable than John Clark. Featured as a supporting character in the film versions of Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, efforts to start a solo series featuring the character have been going since the early 90s with actors like Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Tom Hardy attached to the role at various points; Hardy’s version was even meant to be a spin-off to the failed 2014 Ryan reboot Shadow Recruit. Now after decades of development hell, the origin story of how a former Navy SEAL became the legendary leader of Rainbow Six has finally arrived…and it’s pretty underwhelming.

Official poster for 'Without Remorse,' starring Michael B. Jordan : movies

An incredibly loose adaptation of the 1993 novel, Without Remorse is a standard espionage action thriller…and that’s all that really needs to be said. From its opening moments, the film quickly whips out the list of cliches and starts checking them off. A mission gone wrong, the tragic death of a family for motivation, an unhinged hero out for revenge, potential brink of war, doesn’t know who he can trust, yadda yadda yadda, you know where this is going. Save for a few standout moments and a timely thematic coda, the screenplay frankly feels like it was written on autopilot, but its formulaic plot could be forgiven if it had a unique style and moved at an entertaining clip. Unfortunately, the film delivers neither. Despite having a story only a few steps removed from GI Joe, Without Remorse takes itself way too seriously and moves at frustratingly leisurely place, with nearly half its runtime being set-up that could have been explained within twenty minutes. The second half picks up the pace a bit, but by that point it’s hard to even care what’s going on, and the film otherwise makes little effort to make itself stand out. By the time it reaches its sequel-baiting mid-credits scene, it’s hard to care about seeing the further adventures of John Clark if they’re going to be as generic and forgettable as this.

This 'Without Remorse' trailer needs no apologies
(from left to right) Jodie Turner Smith as Karen Greer and Michael B. Jordan as John Kelly in WITHOUT REMORSE (2021, d. Stefano Sollima)

If there’s anything that keeps Without Remorse from being completely unremarkable, it’s Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Clark. Going by his birthname John Kelly for much of the runtime, Jordan throws himself into the role and creates a fascinating character with a lot of hidden potential. He’s an aggressive and often scary protagonist, pushing morality to its limits in order to complete his mission, but he never crosses that line where he truly becomes a villain. It’s clear Jordan (who is also a producer on the film) is passionate about the character and he gives it his all, and if given a script that actually had a little meat and spice to it, this could have been a career-defining role for him. Sadly, that’s not happened. The rest of the supporting cast acquit themselves well but don’t stand out. Jodie Turner-Smith continues to prove herself a rising star to watch as Kelly’s CO Karen Greer, Jamie Bell gives a somewhat confused performance as CIA operative Robert Ritter, whilst Guy Pearce is serviceable but unexceptional as Secretary of Defence Thomas Clay.

Without Remorse Trailer Featuring Michael B. Jordan - VitalThrills.com
Michael B. Jordan as John Kelly in WITHOUT REMORSE (2021, d. Stefano Sollima)

If there’s anything that can make an otherwise basic action movie memorable, it’s a few good set piece sequences. Without Remorse does have several of those, but beyond an intense jailhouse brawl where Jordan really shows off his chops, the sluggish pacing renders most of these scenes boring; that’s honestly the worst thing an action movie can be. A lot of these issues can be traced back to the editing, which seems to be trying to draw out and linger on shots to create suspense, but they only end up frustrating. An early sequence involving a raid on Kelly’s house is the most damning example, stretching out the build-up to the point of tedium and leaving the final impact blunted. Otherwise, the film is pretty unremarkable on a technical level, even with veteran cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot behind the lens and Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi doing the score; with the exception of Jordan, it’s like everything this film touches turns dull.

Tom Clancy's Without Remorse review: an overpacked thriller missing key  elements - Polygon
(from left to right) Jamie Bell as Robert Ritter and Michael B. Jordan as John Kelly in WITHOUT REMORSE (2021, d. Stefano Sollima)

Without Remorse isn’t an unwatchable film, but it does very little to justify its existence beyond being yet another generic thriller with Tom Clancy’s name slapped on the poster. Michael B. Jordan has proved before he has the chops to be an action star, and his strong efforts here only affirm that, but this is unlikely going to be a role he’s going to be remembered for decades down the line. Unless you’re a diehard Clancy completist, give this one a miss and seek out one of the dozens of better films of its ilk; chances are whatever you pick will have more fun and originality than anything in this disappointing bore.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Mike Rianda, Eric Andre (Bad Trip), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Fred Armisen (Portlandia), Beck Bennett (Brigsby Bear)

Director: Mike Rianda

Writers: Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe (Gravity Falls)

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 30th April (Netflix)

More often than not, animated films are made primarily with children in mind. Plenty of them have sly jokes or deeper messages that only adults will pick up on, but their focus remains on being bright feelgood entertainment for the under 12s. On the other end, animation aimed at adults tends to go far in the other direction; e.g. profanity-spewing primetime cartoons, blood-drenched anime and…whatever the hell Heavy Metal was. It’s rare to find an animated film made outside Japan that balances the needs of those two audiences so well, telling an action-packed story with adult themes and intelligent humour that doesn’t ostracise anyone young in the audience. The perfect blend probably still doesn’t exist, but The Mitchells vs. The Machines certainly comes pretty damn close.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) - IMDb

Though only produced by Phil Lord & Chris Miller rather than written or directed, The Mitchells vs. The Machines has a very similar manic energy and squishy heart to their debut feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but with a maturity to its storytelling that more echoes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The plot is an amusing blend of a road trip comedy and a sci-fi apocalypse adventure, being very self-aware of the tropes of both genres and finding some great ways to modernise and subvert them. The pacing is perhaps a little too rushed in its first act, needlessly starting in media res before flipping back in a way that diminishes the surprise of the sudden robot uprising. Luckily though, once the story proper gets going and the characters are allowed to expand out of their archetypes, the film finds its groove and juggles plot, humour and action without missing a beat.

All of that and more is plenty to recommend the movie to young audiences, but what really sets The Mitchells vs. The Machines apart is how it handles its weightier elements. Unlike so many stories about computers causing the end of the world, it doesn’t devolve into a technophobic screed, but instead flips it around and focuses its ire on corporate greed and careless consumers. It’s a funnier and more honest portrayal of how disasters are caused by stupidity and carelessness rather than some God-fearing karmic nonsense, and technology plays as important a part in saving humanity as it does in dooming it.

Netflix's animated film 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' arrives April 30th  | Engadget
(from left to right) Abbi Jacobson as Katie Mitchell, Maya Rudoplh as Linda Mitchell, Danny McBride as Rick Mitchell, Mike Rianda as Aaron Mitchell, Fred Armisen as Deborahbot 5000 and Beck Bennett as Eric in THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (2021, d. Mike Rianda)

But more than its smart commentary on our tech-dependent culture, the film’s greatest strength comes in its mature depiction of a dysfunctional family, and all of that is thanks to the excellent characterisation brought to life by the spectacular voice cast. Abbi Jacobson makes for an immediately engaging and idiosyncratic lead as aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell, whose frenzied quirkiness is well balanced with her longing for approval and encouragement. The film’s core appeal lies in her relationship with her handyman luddite father Rick, voiced with much exuberance by Danny McBride, and his own insecurities and hang-ups are more than understandable. The father-daughter conflict is hardly revolutionary but it’s done with a lot of nuance and care, ultimately telling a story of unconditional love and bridging the generational divide that a lot of families should see themselves in. My only real issue with Katie is her being yet another example of Hollywood queerbating. Sure, her sexuality is confirmed by the story’s end and isn’t important to the main narrative, but making that a more defined part of her character would have been both a great piece of representation and complimented the film’s themes of acceptance.

On the other side of the Mitchell family, Maya Rudolph is as hilarious as ever playing matriarch Linda, expertly playing the eager-to-please mother with a hidden fire in her belly, whilst writer/director Mike Rianda is an absolute delight as the neurotic, dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron. Olivia Colman makes for a delightful villain as the scorned AI overlord PAL, bringing a human relatability so often lacking from the Skynets and Ultrons of machine overlords past, and Eric Andre is fantastic too as her careless tech giant creator Mark Bowman. However, the characters who surprisingly get the most laughs are definitely Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as a bickering pair of malfunctioning robots who unwittingly help the Mitchells on their world-saving quest; their mechanical delivery and bewildered attempts to deny their deficiencies turn even the simplest of lines into comedic gold.

It's the End of the World as They Know It: The Making of Sony's 'The  Mitchells vs. the Machines' | Animation Magazine
Abbi Jacobson as Katie Mitchell in THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (2021, d. Mike Rianda)

In a market where so many animated films end up looking like each other, Sony Pictures Animation have been doing a great job lately of making their films visually distinctive. It’s easy to take a quick look at The Mitchells vs. The Machines and say it’s basically using the same techniques as the studio’s Spider-Verse, but beyond some slight aesthetic similarities this film has a very different approach to its animation. Again, it hues much closer to Lord & Miller’s earlier animated outings, with exaggerated character movements and cartoony production design that ring closer to Hanna-Barbera than they do Pixar or comic books. With its vibrant watercolour palette and clever use of memes, it’s a unique and gorgeous movie where its shaggy edges, much like Katie’s home movies, are all a part of its charm. Mark Mothersbaugh delivers a fantastic techno-infused score as usual, and the film’s eclectic choice of needle drops are also inspired; no other movie could include Talking Heads, T.I. and Sigur Rós on the same soundtrack and make it seem cohesive, but this film does it somehow.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is that rare animated film that is truly “suitable for all ages” whilst not explicitly being a “kids movie”. Like much of Lord & Miller’s catalogue, it’s a great example of how a film can be childish whilst still being intelligent and emotionally mature, delivering an experience that hits the brain and the heart in equal measure. It’s a film that was clearly as much fun to make as it is to watch, and that love for the art of filmmaking is evident in every frame of animation. I can’t think of the last film I watched where the end credits made me cry, but they once again drive home that this is a movie for families in the greatest sense of the term. No matter the size or shape of your kin, whether you have lots of kids with you or none at all, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a movie every member of the family will get something out of.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

THUNDER FORCE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Melissa McCarthy (The Heat), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses), Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man), Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Kevin Dunn (Transformers), Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Writer/Director: Ben Falcone (Tammy)

Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes

Release Date: 9th April (Netflix)

They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. If that’s true, whoever keeps letting Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone make movies together is certifiably insane, because every single one has failed in the exact same way. Whether it’s Tammy, The Boss, or Life of the Party, every single one is a thrown-together, unpolished, poorly structured mess where scenes meander on as McCarthy improvs incessantly until someone calls cut. With the wife-husband duo now turning their comedic eye towards the superhero genre, one might think the larger scale and action spectacle might mean these two would have to be more prepared, have a tighter story and rely less on their base instincts. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with Thunder Force.

Thunder Force (2021) - IMDb

With superheroes having been the rage of Hollywood for much of this century, there’s a lot of material to pick from and tropes to exploit, but Thunder Force’s vision of superheroes seems stuck somewhere in the mid-90s. The story is incredibly basic and told in a scattershot fashion, with only about enough plot to cover thirty minutes and the rest is just rambling tangents. The entire screenplay feels like a first draft, with ideas raised and then forgotten about or squandered at every turn, and the pacing is glacially slow as scenes drag on and on and on for no reason; the film can’t even do a basic training montage without having to constantly stop for improv.

The film does illicit the occasional chuckle, but most of them come from little incidental details like a character tick or a funny reaction. Meanwhile, the big scripted gags and McCarthy’s never-ending spiel of epithets and pop culture references mostly fall flat, and when the jokes don’t work, don’t expect the fight sequences to pick up the slack. Falcone obviously has no experience or talent for shooting high-concept action, as the staging and choreography of the brawls feels static and unimaginative. There’s no dynamism or dramatic tension to them whatsoever, and no amount of special effects or heroic music can cover up for that pervasive staleness.

Thunder Force Review: Melissa McCarthy & Octavia Spencer Go Superhero |  IndieWire
(from top to bottom) Melissa McCarthy as Lydia Berman/The Hammer and Pom Klementieff as Laser in THUNDER FORCE (2021, d. Ben Falcone)

Even when the jokes fall flat, what ultimately keeps Thunder Force (and Falcone’s films in general) alive is Melissa McCarthy’s pure charisma and persistence. The actress hardly challenges herself character-wise here, playing yet another lovable troublemaker wisecracking her way through life, but she certainly gives it her best shot and commits to the physicality of the role. Unfortunately, as is often the case, McCarthy’s need to constantly own every scene leaves her co-stars with a lot less chances to shine, and that unfortunately affects her heroic partner Octavia Spencer most of all. Her character is certainly strong on paper, but the script gives Spencer very little to work with and she’s clearly not as brazen or committed an improviser as McCarthy, leading her to being constantly overshadowed throughout.

Bobby Cannavale is undercooked as the film’s villain, his main schtick is just getting frustrated by everyone getting his name wrong and being trigger-happy; he’s hardly an appropriate comedic or dramatic foil to McCarthy or Spencer. Pom Klementieff as his laser-flinging sidekick doesn’t fare much better, with the film throwing her so few bones that she is basically forced to play it straight; Klementieff can do comedy, but the material is clearly out of her wheelhouse. Taylor Mosby shows promise as Spencer’s daughter but the story squanders her every chance it gets, whilst Melissa Leo is completely disposable by the film’s end. The only actor that even tries to match McCarthy’s energy is Jason Bateman as a half-crab supervillain. Sure, he’s still relying on the same awkward brand of humour he’s been coasting on since Arrested Development, but that laidback oblivious charm being applied to such a bizarre character is the only time the film feels like it’s actually having fun with it’s comic book-inspired world. Plus, he manages to mine a lot of laughs out of just his walk.

Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer on playing unlikely, 'ordinary women'  superheroes in 'Thunder Force'
(from left to right) Octavia Spencer as Emily Stanton/Bingo and Melissa McCarthy as Lydia Berman/The Hammer in THUNDER FORCE (2021, d. Ben Falcone)

It’s hard to completely hate Thunder Force, but it doesn’t try hard enough to be worth liking either. Even with all the superhero bells and whistles, the whole affair seems like it was thrown together on a whim, which only makes it feel like an even bigger waste of its premise and its stars’ talents. If you’re a diehard McCarthy fan or just want to see Jason Bateman scuttle about like a crab, it may be worth a lazy Sunday afternoon watch. Otherwise, skip this and go watch Shazam! or Deadpool again if you need a superhero comedy fix. Heck, most of the Marvel movies are more consistently funny than this, and the comedy isn’t even the main thrust of those.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

GODZILLA VS. KONG – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan), Millie Bobbie Brown (Stranger Things), Rebecca Hall (The Town), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), Shun Oguri (Weathering with You), Eiza González (Baby Driver), Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2), Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street), Demáin Bichir (A Better Life)

Director: Adam Wingard (The Guest)

Writers: Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island)

Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes

Release Date: 31st March (US/HBO Max), 1st April (UK/PVOD)

Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse has been one of the more peculiar attempts at crafting a cinematic universe, mainly because each successive film has totally reinvented the franchise whilst maintaining a solid continuity. What began as a fairly grounded and serious take on the Godzilla mythos has gradually shifted with each entry towards bonkers sci-fi blockbuster, itself mirroring the similar evolution into absurdity of the original Toho franchise. Now on its fourth entry, the series has now fully embraced that legacy and is ready to put out all the stops, and what better way to celebrate that than by finally delivering the ultimate rematch kaiju fans have been clamouring for: the King of the Monsters against the Eight Wonder of the World. Godzilla vs. Kong is a gonzo monster extravaganza packed full of stellar brawls, insane concepts and fan service surprises that more than delivers on the promise of its title. It’s just a shame that the plot and characters that support all of the spectacle is about as flimsy as the old miniature sets from the Japanese classics that inspired it.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) - IMDb

Whilst a familiarity with the previous entries certainly enhances the experience, Godzilla vs. Kong is a mostly stand-alone story that should be followable to newcomers. Like many of the old kaiju films it takes obvious inspiration from, the plot is mostly an excuse to take the audience on a rollercoaster through its action set pieces and gimmicks, but now on a 2021 Hollywood scale. It moves at a non-stop pace as it breezes through its sub-two-hour running time, moving from sequence to sequence with only nominal downtime to re-establish the stakes. Clever plotting, character development and thematic depth are the last thing on the movie’s mind, and at times that care-free attitude can bolster the experience. Director Adam Wingard’s previous films have often evoked the spirit of 1980s B-movies, and he brings that same sensibility here but with modern toys to play with. By dialling these elements down to the bare minimum, it allows the film to focus entirely on the eye candy and, in doing so, creates one of the most unabashedly over-the-top blockbusters in recent memory. With that said, whilst neither Kong: Skull Island nor Godzilla: King of the Monsters had quite the same barefaced tenacity as Wingard’s film, both still managed to eke out just enough resonance to establish an emotional investment whilst still delivering on the spectacle. If watching those movies was like going to a trashy but earnest stage musical, Godzilla vs. Kong is more like an elaborately staged arena rock concert: the energy is intoxicating, everyone is having a blast and it’s never boring, but you’d be hard pressed to forget that it’s all just a show.

Godzilla vs. Kong' Review | Hollywood Reporter
The King of the Monsters and The Eight Wonder of the World duke it out in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021, d. Adam Wingard)

If anything has stayed consistent through the Monsterverse franchise, it’s been a tendency to hire a fantastic cast and then forgetting to do anything interesting with most of them. Only Millie Bobbie Brown and Kyle Chandler return as daughter and father Madison and Mark Russell from King of the Monsters, but the former has changed so much that she might as well be a totally new character whilst the latter only makes sporadic cameos. Alexander Skarsgård is the by-default lead as disgraced scientist Dr Nathan Lind, but his character is drawn in only the broadest of strokes and Skarsgård’s charisma can only carry that so far. Rebecca Hall is a bit more compelling as the Jane Goodall-inspired Dr Ilene Andrews, especially thanks to her sweet relationship with adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) but not by much.

Julian Dennison is hilarious as usual and certainly giving his all as Madison’s reluctant ally Josh but is given very little to work with, whilst Brian Tyree Henry chews the scenery as paranoid conspiracy podcaster Bernie to mixed effect. The film’s biggest weak spot is its human villains who, despite their cartoon supervillain evil plan being a lot of fun, are as flat as the paper their dialogue was written on. Demáin Bichir certainly has a hoot hamming it up as tech CEO Walter Simmons, but Eiza González as his crony daughter Maia is little more than a prop. Most disappointingly, the film’s one interesting wrinkle is the introduction of Shun Ogori as Ren Serizawa, the son of Ken Watanabe’s character from the previous films, as Simmons’ right-hand man. They even hint at a really interesting twist with his character…that they then immediately throw away. Why bother even making that connection to Serizawa if you’re not going to do something interesting with it?

(from left to right) Julian Dennison as Josh Valentine, Millie Bobbie Brown as Madison Russell, and Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie Hayes in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021, d. Adam Wingard)

With the human characters mostly awash with perfunctory stock clichés, it’s up to the kaiju to carry the heavy lifting and, bafflingly, they end up being the only ones with actual character arcs and interesting motivations. Kong is the emotional core of the film, having grown tired and even more lonely in the decades since the events of Skull Island, and his quest to find a new home would have made a compelling adventure all on its own. Godzilla is depicted as an antagonist for much of the runtime, but the filmmakers never outright paint him as a villain and both his destructive motivations and rivalry with Kong make sense within the context of the story. Saying much more would be delving into spoiler territory, but there are absolutely more monsters old and new on display other than the titular titans, and one in particular is certain to please diehard kaiju fans.

The action across the three previous Monsterverse films was a mixed bag. The Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla was scant on monster brawls and purposefully cut away from showing them at points, though it ultimately paid off with a stellar finale. Skull Island thankfully dropped this approach and went for a more traditional blockbuster presentation, whilst King of the Monsters did its best to marry the two styles. Godzilla vs. Kong, meanwhile, is a unique beast of its own. The action sequences are easily the most coherent of the series, set in well-lit locations with simple geography and featuring some of the most inventive fight choreography in a modern kaiju film. It truly feels like a natural evolution to the rubber suit clashes of the genre’s past, but at the same time it loses a lot of its verisimilitude. This is mainly due to the cinematography which, whilst gorgeous on a lighting level and great for showing off the fights, too often falls into the trap of using impossible CG camera angles. Whilst the filmmakers do still at times use low angles and long lenses to create a sense of scale and place your gaze as if looking up at these gargantuan creatures, it intercuts them with wide-angle close-ups and spinning aerial shots that break the immersion.

Kaylee Hottle as Jia, who communicates with Kong
Kaylee Hottle as Jia in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021, d. Adam Wingard)

It’s just one detail in a production that is completely extra on every level, like the film’s wild production design that features gigantic biodomes, gravity-warping aircraft, tunnels through the earth’s core and the evil scientist lab to end all evil scientist labs. The visual effects have a slightly more cartoony flair but are consistently strong throughout, especially in the character animations that bring subtle hints of humanity to these legendary monsters, whilst Tom Holkenborg’s score is an epic mash-up of Zimmer-esque bombast and soothing Vangelis-inspired synth; in a landscape where so many blockbuster soundtracks sound the same, this one has flair all its own. However, easily the film’s biggest enemy is its structural editing, which makes it more than obvious that a lot of material was cut to get the film down to its breezy 113-minute runtime. Whether the film would be any more compelling or coherent with these scenes added back, I do not know, but their absence is certainly felt.

Godzilla vs. Kong is an indulgent bowl of pure sugar entertainment, cutting all the fluff and focusing entirely on delivering jaw-dropping ape-on-lizard carnage. There are certainly a bunch of easy parallels to be made to Batman v Superman (one scene in particular might as well have Kong plead to Godzilla to “save…Mothra”), but the more apt comparison would be Pacific Rim: Uprising. Beyond the genre connection, it is also a sequel that pays respect to its predecessor but drops all of its complexities and authenticity to essentially reinvent itself as an ultra-expensive Saturday morning cartoon. Whether that sounds appetising to you or not, Godzilla vs. Kong is certainly the dessert at the end of the Monsterverse meal, leaving you with a sweet taste in your mouth whilst lacking the nutrition the prior courses provided.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ben Affleck (The Town), Henry Cavill (The Witcher), Amy Adams (Arrival), Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Ray Fisher (True Detective), Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard with a Vengeance), Diane Lane (Streets of Fire), Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man), Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director: Zack Snyder (Watchmen)

Writer: Chris Terrio (Argo)

Runtime: 4 hours 2 minutes

Release Date: 18th March (US/HBO Max, UK/Sky Cinema)

Back in 2017, I was one of the defenders of the theatrical cut of Justice League, but let me be clear: my opinion has soured since then and you can file that review with about a dozen others I no longer stand by. I still don’t hate that version, but with every viewing the patchwork seams became more and more obvious. It’s not a Zack Snyder film, but it’s not a Joss Whedon film either; it’s a product constructed from disparate parts by a corporation salvaging a troubled production, thrown malformed into theatres hoping to eke out a profit. It didn’t work. Would I have liked to have seen Zack Snyder’s intended version back then? For the sake of curiosity, absolutely, but I doubted it would ever see the light of day. It would remain an unseen what-could-have-been, sat on a shelf next to Josh Trank’s original cut of Fantastic Four, Lord & Miller’s Solo, and the extended version of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane and Norman Osborn as a head in a jar. No seriously, that almost happened.

In spite of this, whether fuelled by hope, desperation, or old-fashioned toxic fan whinging, the demand for Snyder’s version to be finished persisted. Putting aside both its charitable contributions and its disconcerting connection to online harassment, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut seemed like a campaign doomed to fail for the simple reason that its goal seemed unreachable. This was a prospective project that would cost tens of millions to complete, all for a ridiculously-long version of a film that already lost the studio hundreds of millions, and the final result would make Warner Bros. look like idiots no matter how good or bad the final product turned out. However, whether fuelled by the fan demand or just needing original content to boost subscriptions for HBO Max, they went and did it anyway. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now a real film you can watch, and let me get all of the important questions out of the way. Is it worthy of all the overblown hype and worth tolerating the obsessive, abusive tactics of some of its campaigners? No. Would it have been releasable as a tentpole theatrical blockbuster? Not without a hell of a marketing campaign and at least one interval. Is it better than the theatrical version? Absolutely. Did I like it? Well…that’s what the rest of the review is for.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) - IMDb

Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is twice as long as its 2017 counterpart and drastically different in many facets, at its core it tells essentially the same story. As much as people decried Whedon’s additions to the film, much of his work was to simplify and stitch together Snyder’s footage into something more “releasable”. That said, having now seen what it was supposed to be, it honestly makes the changes in the theatrical cut that much more baffling. Watching the film, it’s clear that Snyder took the criticisms of Batman v Superman to heart and did his best to satisfy them in his own way. Its story is fundamentally simpler, packing its gargantuan runtime with world-building and character development rather than over-complicated villain schemes or pretentious deconstructionism. It fundamentally lightens the tone without turning into an obvious attempt to ape Marvel, cutting much of the cloying and misplaced humour that permeated Whedon’s cut, resulting in a film that is consistent with Snyder’s prior entries but still has a blockbuster spirit and an uplifting outlook.

However, the most fundamental difference isn’t all of the gratuitous cameos, the increased operatic spectacle, or the plugging up of plot holes and inconsistencies. It’s the simple fact that this version has the core ingredient truly missing from the 2017 version: relatable characters with emotionally satisfying arcs. The film certainly takes its sweet time and probably could afford to kill a few darlings, especially an indulgence towards the end where Snyder gives in to his worst edgelord instincts, but on the whole it’s a satisfying blockbuster experience that hopefully gets the big screen presentation it is crying out for. It’s a true culmination of the story began in Man of Steel whilst opening itself up for plenty more, and its scope can only really be matched by Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Honestly, if this version had come out when it was supposed to, people would have accused Marvel of ripping them off.

Zack Snyder's Justice League': an unflinching update fans can be proud of
(from left to right) Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg, Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, and Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

With the increased runtime, that only gives the cast more opportunities to shine, and in some cases it fundamentally improves their characters. Ben Affleck still takes something of a backseat as Batman, but his performance remains strong and he gets plenty of good action beats and solid development. As usual, Gal Gadot is effervescent as Wonder Woman, with her character being improved less by what’s been added back in and more what’s been taken out (i.e. no more Flash lying on top of her or endless pining for Steve Trevor). Jason Momoa doesn’t get that much more screen time as Aquaman, but he now has a more cohesive arc that ties better into his solo film, whilst Ezra Miller’s Flash is given a lot more emotional heft whilst remaining the film’s key source of comic relief. Henry Cavill, now without a trace of his moustache-hiding CG upper lip, still doesn’t have much to do but the build-up to his return now has actual weight to it, by its conclusion delivering the sincere and hopeful Superman we’ve been dying for all along. However, no one benefits from this cut more than Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Reduced to a mere plot device in the original, he now has a fleshed-out origin, a rapport with the rest of the team, and an actual story that transforms him from the most forgettable member of the Justice League into its emotional backbone. More than anyone, Fisher was done dirty by the theatrical cut, and here’s hoping his career gets the resurgence he deserves; not only because of his great performance here, but everything he’s done since to call out Hollywood toxicity.

There were so many characters in the theatrical version that got short shrift or removed entirely, and in some cases they were understandable. For instance, Willem Dafoe, Kiersey Clemons and Zheng Khai are restored as Nuidis Vulko, Iris West and Ryan Choi respectively, but their plot importance is mostly perfunctory; the film never even mentions that Clemons is playing West. However, for others their addition improves the film. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane gets her own subplot and development as she deals with her grief after Batman v Superman, though her primary purpose remains inextricably linked to Superman’s arc. A scene she shares with Diane Lane as Martha Kent is one of the more emotionally rich in the entire film, making its replacement by Whedon with an inferior version retroactively baffling. Much like his on-screen son, Joe Morton gets his due as Dr. Silas Stone and his strained relationship with Fisher is wonderfully bittersweet, whilst Ciarán Hinds’ Steppenwolf has been bolstered from one of the worst on-screen supervillains into…well, he’s still not that interesting, but he has more nuanced motivations and actually feels like a threat now. Though much hyped, Ray Porter’s role as Darkseid is mostly just sequel bait but he certainly embodies the part well, and Jared Leto’s cameo as The Joker is better than his performance in Suicide Squad but absolutely useless; it doesn’t even have the meme factor of him saying “we live in a society”.

Zack Snyder's Justice League: What the fans are saying
Ray Porter as Darkseid in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

Zack Snyder is a contentious filmmaker for completely understandable reasons, but much like fellow blockbuster punching bag Michael Bay, it would be wrong to call him an unimaginative hack. Even if he hasn’t always fully grasped the material he’s working with, he has a style all his own and has a distinctive eye for spectacle, and he delivers that in spades with Justice League. Whilst much of his action sequences were retained in the theatrical cut, they were cut to ribbons and ruined by a botched attempt to retroactively lighten the material. What were fairly generic set pieces in that version have been restored to full glory and are packed with standout moments, with the fight under Gotham Harbour and the final assault on Steppenwolf’s base being some of the best in DCEU history. The horrid oversaturated colour grade has been replaced with a cooler palette more in line with the previous films, though it does leave much of the film looking like they forgot to colour balance the cameras.

The structural editing of the film is also much improved, with the story now flowing at a more logical pace. Conversely though, the momentary editing now has the opposite problem to the theatrical, with countless takes held much longer than really needed. I understand Snyder probably felt like he needed to show everything, but certain scenes could have been trimmed ever-so-slightly. Easily the most transformation for the film is its new score by Junkie XL, which subtly but radically improves the tone of several key sequences; Danny Elfman’s prior score wasn’t terrible on its own, but it simply didn’t mesh with the visuals no matter what filter they put on it. Even the visual effects, whilst still compromised in certain ways, on the whole look better than the 2017 version, though some of the designs remain contentious; seriously, Steppenwolf now looks like a disco-themed Rob Liefeld character. The only aspect of the theatrical version I ended up missing were the choice of needle drops, with all of the rock music now replaced with sad ballads. Maybe it’s just me, but having seen Aquaman leap into the ocean to the thumping guitar of The White Stripes, it’s odd to see that sequence set to the gloomy tones of Nick Cave instead.

Cyborg Takes Center Stage in Zack Snyder's Justice League Teaser Trailer
Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

It baffles me to even say this, but it’s true: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not only a better film than its 2017 version, it in hindsight makes the theatrical cut feel like a pointed insult. It’s a cinematic glow-up for the ages, transforming a box office bomb into a triumphant epic that dares to be extra. It pays off a trilogy of build-up whilst also setting up a promising and vibrant future for the DCEU, gives every character the time and respect they deserve, and proves that Snyder can listen to criticism whilst not compromising his vision. It’s perfectly understandable why some audiences may still not enjoy it, but it’s hard not to at least acknowledge how significant a moment this is in the current cinematic landscape. Whether this will affect the current plans for the DCEU or how studios approach director’s cuts in general, it’s too early to tell. Right now, all we have is a movie that I’m sure many of the fans who clamoured for it will love, and I hope this ultimately leads to positive change in the fandom. Well done, Zack. I hope this helped you find some peace.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan (Humans), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), Sandra Oh (Killing Eve)

Directors: Don Hall (Big Hero 6) & Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting)

Writers: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians)

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date: 5th March (US/Disney+)

It’s been over four years since Walt Disney Animation Studios have delivered a wholly original feature film, with their last two outings being uncharacteristic diversions into sequels with Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II. Whilst there was nothing inherently wrong with those films or making sequels in general, it did leave some to wonder if the studio’s second renaissance may finally have come to an end. With Raya and the Last Dragon, those worries should be put to bed. Though it treads on plenty of familiar territory for a Disney film, it also brings plenty that is innovative and refreshing to the genre. It is a sign that the House of Mouse, whilst still having an immense respect and confidence in its foundations, is willing to experiment and try to reach out to new concepts and audiences, and we can only hope this is a sign of even greater stories to come.

Raya And The Last Dragon' Review: Disney On Autopilot

Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a world ravaged by an unforgiving plague that has ripped families apart and divided humanity against itself, leaving those who survive yearning for a time when life can return to normal whilst their leaders only seek to fortify their own power. Whilst some of these parallels are likely unintentional, it’s a tale that reflects the current state of the world in an optimistic but honest fashion, and will hopefully teach and encourage its younger viewers with its unifying themes. The moment-to-moment storytelling is a little less inspiring, with a first act that relies on heavy-handed exposition and an episodic approach to its main quest. Though all of these elements come together and pay off excellently come the earth-shattering climax, it does leave you wanting a more optimised story. At times, it feels like an entire season of a TV series squashed into ninety minutes; a great series with a beautifully realized world, relatable and distinctive characters, and a truly inspiring message, but an abbreviated version of it nonetheless.

With that said, those broad strokes are more than enough to keep the plot fresh and engaging, and what it lacks in fine detail it makes up for with moral complexity and abundant sincerity. This is easily Disney’s most adult movie since its first renaissance, often evoking the bleaker spirit of Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame,but it doesn’t succumb to tonal whiplash like those films; when things get dangerous or sombre, they are treated as such without relying on slapstick sidekicks or anachronistic humour to placate the kids. It is an emotionally rich and satisfying epic fantasy tale in its own right, and Disney should be commended for taking those risks and relying less on its traditional formulas.

Raya and the Last Dragon and Southeast Asian Representation | Time
(from left to right) Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (2021, d. Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada)

Disney princesses have come in a lot of varieties over the years, and whilst more modern examples have pushed themselves away from the traditional dainty image, Raya is certainly the most drastic departure from the mould in quite a while. She’s a warrior first and a princess second, with a bitter attitude and a reluctance to trust others, but she has a sensitive soul and a relatable motivation for her pessimistic outlook. Voiced with exuberant aplomb by Kelly Marie Tran, Raya is a truly wonderful protagonist and a stellar example of how to craft a strong and multifaceted female protagonist, and we deserve more heroines of her ilk in the future.

At her side as the titular last dragon is Awkwafina as the naïve and excitable Sisu, who certainly evokes Disney’s previous animated dragon sidekick in her performance. Thankfully, she avoids turning Sisu into a caricature of her real-world persona and plays the character sincerely, delivering some of the film’s most heartfelt moments as well as being its main source of comic relief. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out by a stellar mix of talent, from newcomer Izaac Wang as the boisterous ship captain/cook Boun to the always-dependable Benedict Wong as the warm-hearted barbarian Tong, but the clear standout is Gemma Chan as Raya’s rival princess Namaari. She’s the best kind of antagonist, in that she’s just as emotionally and morally complex as our protagonist, making every time she and Raya come to blows feel that much more captivating; with a simple rewrite, you could easily turn her into the hero and it’d be just as satisfying.

How Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon Animators Finished the Film from Home
(from left to right) Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (2021, d. Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada)

Though they haven’t always captured these cultures in the most authentic or respectful way in the past, it’s always a joy to see Disney bring to life another part of the world in their world-class animation. The world of Raya takes place in a fantastical land inspired by Southeast Asia, and I would place a hefty bet that the animators took inspiration just as much from a certain popular Nickelodeon cartoon as they did from the actual folklore of Thailand or the Philippines.

That said, any comparisons between this film and Avatar: The Last Airbender are mostly surface level, as the animation and artistic quality of Raya are undeniably those of Disney. This is a richly detailed and gorgeously vivid world they’ve crafted, from the macro concepts like the environments shaped to resemble the anatomy of a dragon, to tiny little moments like Raya using her snake-like sword like a grappling hook (eat your heart out, Ivy Valentine). It’s simply a beautifully realised film from start to finish whether engaging in thrillingly choreographed fight sequences or quiet moments of reflection in the rain, and I wish more audiences could safely experience it on the big screen; do yourself a favour and try to see it on the best TV you can if you’re watching at home.

Raya and the Last Dragon wasn't going to be a Disney Princess film. Adele  Lim changed that - Esquire Middle East
(from left to right) Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (2021, d. Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada)

Raya and the Last Dragon certainly isn’t an instant classic, but it’s more than worthy of the Disney legacy and takes the studio to bold new places. It has some structural issues that lead to some unfortunately cramped storytelling, but on the grand scale those hiccups never threaten what is otherwise a remarkable feat of animation. It stands as a film that reflects the progress and challenges of the time it was made in, but also respects that heritage of stories that came before it whilst remaining timeless for future generations. Whether they’ve known it or not, young audiences have needed and been craving for a hero like Raya for a long time, who now takes a distinguished place in the dynasty of Disney princesses. Much like how the first Disney renaissance broke away from paying homage to the classics and moved into more experimental territory in its second half, Raya and the Last Dragon could represent that shift for this generation. Hopefully, that means we’ve managed to skip over whatever the 21st century equivalent of Pocahontas is. *shudder*

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

COMING 2 AMERICA – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop), Arsenio Hall (Black Dynamite), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), KiKi Layne (The Old Guard), Shari Headley (The Preacher’s Wife), Wesley Snipes (Blade), James Earl Jones (The Lion King)

Director: Craig Brewer (Dolemite Is My Name)

Writers: Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield (The Nutty Professor)

Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes

Release Date: 5th March (Amazon Prime)

I have mixed feelings about the return of Eddie Murphy. On the one hand, he is clearly still a talented and hilarious actor, with his stellar comeback turn as Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name prooving he still has something to give. However, like a lot of comedians from his era, his brand of humour doesn’t so easily translate to modern sensibilities. Even Murphy himself has apologised retroactively for some of his more tasteless stand-up, and I think that change in sensitivity may be partly why he backed away from Hollywood for nearly a decade after a long string of flops. Now with the goodwill he’s regained from Dolemite, Murphy seems confident to make a true triumphant return by making a follow-up to one of his beloved classics. Coming 2 America is very self-aware of the stigma surrounding comedy sequels, and if there was ever a good time to make a second Coming to America, now is better than any before. Unfortunately, the final product is ultimately stale, formulaic, and old-fashioned in the worst way; far from the royal homecoming Murphy clearly wanted or what his fans deserved.

New Coming 2 America Poster Features New and Familiar Characters

Coming 2 America immediately stumbles within the first ten minutes, spending the rest of its runtime trying to recover from a massive error in judgement that epitomises the film’s greatest weakness. This may be stepping into spoiler territory, but this needs to be made clear up front: the plot begins when Prince Akeem (Murphy) learns he sired an illegitimate son off-screen during the events of the first film, after unknowingly having sex with Mary (Leslie Jones) because he was so high that he thought she was just a boar he hallucinated. Let me just rephrase that to make it clear: THE STORY BEGINS WITH EDDIE MURPHY REALIZING HE WAS RAPED, AND IT IS PLAYED FOR LAUGHS. From that moment on, there is absolutely no way Coming 2 America can recover from such a bad taste moment. Whilst the film never stoops so low again, this poor attempt to meld 80s comedy sensibilities with modern taste runs through the rest of the production and it constantly falls flat. Like so many comedy sequels, most of the jokes are just the recycled remains of the best jokes from the first movie, with pretty much every notable character from that film returning whether they have good reason to or not.

On the other end, Coming 2 America’s attempts at being contemporary and progressive fall just as flat. The story’s vague stab at female empowerment with KiKi Layne’s subplot is typical and underdeveloped, and the rest are just a bunch of tired jokes about Black Panther, being “on fleek”, Lyft drivers and, of course, mild transphobia. The only promising new conceit is Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and his reticence to accept royal privilege when he’d rather build a life for himself. It’s an interesting avenue that truly feels like a contemporary reflection on both its predecessor and present-day class disparity, but much like everything with promise in the film, it abandons it in favour of just rehashing the “I want a woman that will arouse my intellect as well as my loins” plot from the first film. With all that said, what’s most baffling about Coming 2 America is how seriously it otherwise takes itself. The story often treats itself as if its part of some great saga and goes for a far more sentimental vibe, which perhaps is fitting in a generational story of passing the torch, but it’s nigh impossible to be emotionally invested when those same scenes often feature Murphy dressed up in caricatured make-up talking in a silly voice and making sexist remarks.

Review: 'Coming 2 America' eventually overcomes its flaws to deliver
(from left to right) Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem Joffer and Jermaine Fowler as Lavelle Junson in COMING 2 AMERICA (2021, d. Craig Brewer)

The film only ends up being vaguely watchable because the cast’s talent and charisma manages to wade through the bad material and stay afloat to the end. Though not quite the same man he used to be, Eddie Murphy is certainly trying his best and manages to pull out several laughs and even a few moments of sincerity. He’s clearly not sleepwalking through the film, but there’s certainly a sense that he’s often fighting against an urge to go full Raw. Arsenio Hall, meanwhile, is given very little to work with and often flat-out disappears for good chunks of the film. Despite receiving second-billing and being just as much a star of the first film as Murphy, Hall lacks much if any narrative purpose after the first act other than to butt heads with Tracy Morgan. Shari Headley, returning as Akeem’s bride Lisa, gives a spirited performance with her limited material and once again holds her own against Murphy, whilst James Earl Jones makes a brief but dignified return as King Jaffe.

In terms of new faces, Jermaine Fowler easily comes out of the film the strongest as Akeem’s son Lavelle. He manages to embody Murphy’s mannerisms without directly copying him, and he has a rebellious attitude and grounded perspective that make him a much more relatable character than anyone else in the film; it’s a shame the plot doesn’t let him properly explore that. Leslie Jones does what Leslie Jones does best and steals every scene she is in, which is almost enough to redeem her character after being a key player in the story’s horrendous inciting incident. KiKi Layne is mostly wasted as Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka, whilst Wesley Snipes hams it up as the treacherous General Izzi in yet another surprisingly accomplished comedic performance. Much of the rest of the cast is chock full of celebrity cameos, many of which playing themselves, but after an early scene where they blow half of them in the space of a few minutes, those surprises quickly feel fleeting.

Coming 2 America review: A fun trip back in time | EW.com
Wesley Snipes as General Izzi in COMING 2 AMERICA (2021, d. Craig Brewer)

Though it recycles a lot of humour and what’s new rarely raises a chuckle, I can’t call Coming 2 America a lazy or unnecessary sequel, but it is a fundamentally misguided one. Like a casually bigoted but otherwise kind old man trying to better himself around his son’s foreign wife and his queer granddaughter, it is a film that clearly wants to get with the times but whose old habits die hard. A sequel to Coming to America could have been more than just a repeat of past glories. It could have been a genuine exploration of changing times, an honest reflection on how “traditions” often come hand-in-hand with marginalisation, and tackled how attitudes towards race, class and gender (and, subtextually, comedy) have changed. Instead, Coming 2 America just wants to tell the same problematic jokes in an inappropriate context, then claim its progressive by making gentrification jokes and saying, “Hey…what about a woman leader?” I had such high hopes this might have been one of those exceptions to the comedy sequel rule, but you can go ahead and toss this in the same pile as Zoolander 2. The great nation of Zamunda deserved better than this.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

WONDER WOMAN 1984 – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Chris Pine (Star Trek), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian), Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride)

Director: Patty Jenkins (Monster)

Writers: Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns (Aquaman) and Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap)

Runtime: 2 hours 31 minutes

Release Date: 16th December (UK), 25th December (US)

In this critic’s opinion, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Rather than just another aping of the Marvel formula, it used Richard Donner’s Superman as its key point of inspiration and delivered a classic mythic tale that encapsulated the essence of Diana Prince in cinematic form; yeah, the third act was a bit of an odd gear shift, but it otherwise delivered with flying colours. It remains the shining star all DC movies since have had to compare themselves too, and I doubt one will even match its like soon. That too, I’m afraid, very much applies to its sequel. Though Wonder Woman 1984 does retain the optimism and spirit that made the first film feel so refreshing, it ultimately tries to do too many things at once, making for an ambitious and often awe-inspiring blockbuster but one that nearly buckles from its own exuberance.

Wonder Woman 1984 immediately sheds what remaining grimdark influence Zack Snyder had over its predecessor, tonally delivering a much more vibrant and upbeat adventure that feels like it could have been made in the year of its namesake. The story itself is a fairly simple “be careful what you wished for” narrative blown up on a global scale, succeeding where the first film did by building its narrative and themes around Wonder Woman’s ethos; if the first film was about Diana’s power of love, this is about her power of truth. The film is at its best when it goes for broke and embraces its comic book inspirations, even if it sometimes borders on parody. However, this whimsical technicolour outlook doesn’t always gel with a film that also wants to make a serious political statement. Much of the plot is allegorical for both the greed of the 1980s and its nasty resurgence in modern times, and it’s hardly subtle about it. The problem doesn’t lie so much in its treacly yet earnest message, but in how it is delivered. It naively simplifies complex issues of political motivations and personality deficiencies that just can’t be unravelled so easily, even by a literal demigod superhero. There’s nothing wrong with a film being optimistic, and the breadth of it present in Wonder Woman 1984 can be intoxicatingly uplifting. Unfortunately, it approaches topics like capitalism and authoritarianism with the ingenuous thinking of an ex-boyfriend thinking they can win back their lover with a grand romantic gesture; its heart is in the right place, but it’s just not that simply solved.

Wonder Woman 1984 Delayed from October to Christmas in Latest Release Shift  | Vanity Fair
(from left to right) Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor in WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020, d. Patty Jenkins)

Even in subpar fare like Batman v Superman and Justice League, Gal Gadot has always been the bright star of the DCEU and continues to do the name of Wonder Woman proud here. Much like the film itself, her performance exudes with joy and playfulness, but with a clear undercurrent of world weariness and desperate longing. She’s a more confident and witty character than in the first film, where her humour relied more on fish-out-of-water gags, but even with her power she’s still clearly a human with needs and flaws that lead her into trouble. This character development helps to freshen up her relationship with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, with him now in the role of the newcomer astounded by the “future” of the 1980s. Though the way his character re-enters the story is odd and needlessly complicated, Pine himself is as charming and affable as ever and his chemistry with Gadot continues to be a high point for the franchise.

The big new draw for WW84 is its villains, and both Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal do not disappoint on a performance level as Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord respectively. Though Wiig feels well-cast as an awkward wallflower, it’s a little tiresome to see yet another superhero movie where the villain starts off as a nerd with big glasses and bad hair who has an unhealthy obsession with the hero (I mean, they literally introduce her with a “clumsily drops her papers and no one helps her” moment). Luckily, once Minerva begins to shed her anxieties and go down the wicked path, Wiig really gets a chance to show her range as more than just a comedienne; I’d love to see her get more opportunities to stretch like this. Meanwhile, Pascal is an utter delight from his first moments on screen as the delightful but insecure Lord, turning the character into far more than just a playful take on a certain other power-hungry con man who lies his way to the top. He is absolutely the best thing about the movie and balances that fine line between taking his character seriously and having a blast with it. Sadly, his character’s arc is where the film’s biggest problem is most evident, as if the film itself fell in love with Lord so much that it couldn’t bare to give him his deserved fate. The rest of the supporting cast is made up of relatively minor roles, with Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright only returning as Hippolyta and Antiope for a prologue sequence that is narratively superfluous but thematically important, and classic Wonder Woman fans would do well to sit through the credits for a long-overdue cameo.

Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah are Unleashed in Wonder Woman 1984 | DC
(from left to right) Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva/Cheetah and Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord in WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020, d. Patty Jenkins)

When I said the film has a “whimsical technicolour outlook”, that applies as much to the visuals as it does the tone. WW84 bathes itself in the neon excess of the 1980s on every level, from Diana’s glossy new costumes to the film’s highly stylised colour grading. Despite retaining cinematographer Matthew Jensen from the first film, this is a vastly different film from a stylistic perspective, going for a far more hyperreal aesthetic that is often evocative of the art of Alex Ross; there are so many shots in this film that made my jaw drop just from their staging and/or lighting. Though none could ever match the majesty of the No Man’s Land sequence from its predecessor, the action sequences on display are varied and thrilling, with particular highlights being a car chase through the Egyptian desert and the best superhero battle at the White House since the Nightcrawler sequence from X2.  Sadly, the film does have some technical shortcomings. The visual effects are incredibly inconsistent, even with things as basic as compositing; one could argue this was an intentional choice to evoke the VFX of 1980s movies, but it’d be a pretty tenuous one. Most disappointingly, the score by Hans Zimmer lacks the bombast of his usual compositions and is mostly pretty forgettable, with the new arrangement of the Wonder Woman theme sounding especially restrained. It almost feels like temp music at times, with Zimmer even blatantly reusing a track from his Batman v Superman score in one key scene. Why? I have no idea. The scene isn’t a callback to that film in any way narratively or thematically. The track is just…there, like they put it in during the rough edit and forgot to replace it later.

Watch Wonder Woman 1984 Online Free: How to Stream the Film on HBO Max -  Rolling Stone
Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020, d. Patty Jenkins)

If the first Wonder Woman was the spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman, Wonder Woman 1984 is very much Superman II. It’s bigger, bolder and brighter than the first film, but it lacks the verisimilitude that made its predecessor transcend the genre. Purely as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, I can highly recommend it as a joyous comic book adventure made with an abundance of talent, passion and care. That said, it makes the mistake of buying into its own hype, lacking the restraint it needs to realize how ridiculously naïve it is. I mean, it’s nowhere near as childishly simplistic as “Superman solves nuclear war by tossing all the nukes into the Sun”, but it veers in that direction. Ultimately, Patty Jenkins’ love for the character is still all over this film, and I almost can’t blame her for overindulging herself after being freed from having to fit herself into a Snyder-shaped hole. Hopefully, after her detour to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, she’ll come back and deliver a capper to this trilogy worthy of its ambitions.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

MULAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Yifei Liu (The Forbidden Kingdom), Donnie Yen (Rogue One), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Jason Scott Lee (Lilo & Stitch), Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha), Yonson An (Mortal Engines), Jet Li (The Expendables),

Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)

Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin (Christmas Perfection)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 4th September (Disney+)

Another year, another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, and 1998’s Mulan is an obvious yet dicey choice for the makeover treatment. Its wartime period setting immediately sets it up for action spectacle, its themes of female empowerment are just as timely as ever, and from a business perspective it’s a no-brainer to appeal to the lucrative Chinese box office. However, aside from maybe the occasional pop culture reference courtesy of Eddie Murphy, the original film still holds up incredibly well, and so remaking it only risks turning it into either yet another note-for-note rehash like The Lion King or some bizarre recontextualization like Dumbo. Luckily, it seems Disney has managed to hit the bullseye for the first time since 2016’s The Jungle Book, delivering a retelling that perfectly balances respecting its inspiration whilst forging its own identity and purpose.

Mulan (2020) - IMDb

The core plot structure of the 1998 film has been retained for the remake, though the first and third acts of the film have been expanded and altered to give the story a grander scope. Those familiar with the original will certainly find the film faithful in spirit, though reinterpreted through a modern and more serious lens. This is easily the most tonally mature of the Disney remakes so far, abandoning much of the light-hearted humour and giving the story a much more mythic feel. It clearly takes influence from wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, along with western war epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but at its core the film Mulan clearly aspires to be compared to is Wonder Woman. Like Patty Jenkins’ superhero epic, it very earnestly takes to heart the core themes and ideals of its protagonist, leaning into the power fantasy of its premise whilst still giving it due respect and pathos.

Unlike Disney’s recent iffy attempts at integrating feminist messages into their remakes like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, they’ve managed to take a story that already had solid female empowerment and find ways to subtly improve on those ideas. Through just a few slight but significant changes to Mulan’s character arc and the introduction of the new sub-villain Xian Lang, the film bolsters the already-present themes of identity and family into something that feels fresh and contemporary; it’s very clear that this is a film made by women. Ultimately, what makes Mulan work is that it doesn’t try too hard to either copy the original or drastically set itself apart, finding a comfortable balance in the middle. It is a fantastic companion piece to the animated film, but also stands up as a great action movie on its own.

Mulan: 5 Things Disney's Remake Is Keeping the Same, and 6 It's Changing -  IGN
(from left to right) Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan and Gong Li as Xian Lang in MULAN (2020, d. Niki Caro)

Where the decision to darken the film’s tone doesn’t work in its favour is in its characterisation. Yifei Liu’s Mulan is a far more distant and less charismatic interpretation than Ming-Na Wen’s from the animated film, though on the page that seems intentional. The new film positions Mulan as far less confident at first, her boisterous personality and longing for adventure forcibly supressed in order to fit in, and so understandably she comes off as nervous and scared to exert herself. Unfortunately, even once she finds her confidence as a warrior, her character remains somewhat bland. It’s unclear how much of this is down to Liu’s performance or the screenplay, but it’s a bit disappointing that the weakest part of Mulan is Mulan herself. Luckily, what this version of the character lacks in charm, she makes up for on the battlefield.

The film’s supporting cast is full of great Chinese acting talent and, though many of them don’t get the screen time they deserve, they all do a fantastic job with what material they’re given. The easy standout is Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, who is immediately captivating and badass from the moment he walks on screen. Fulfilling half of the role of Li Shang from the original film (with his companion and potential romance duties being given to Yonson An’s Chen), he carries much of the film’s charisma entirely on his shoulders. Tzi Ma is also fantastic as Mulan’s father Zhou, giving the film a much-needed sense of gravitas. Jason Scott Lee does a solid job as Bori Khan, the film’s reinterpretation of Shan Yu, but the character can’t help but be a somewhat bland villain. Thankfully, Gong Li as the witch Xian Lang more than makes up for this. She serves as a perfect mirror to Mulan and her desires, and gives us a villain motivated by far more than just power and revenge. Even though it’s interesting to see him get involved in the action this time around, Jet Li feels a bit underutilised as the Emperor, whilst the film’s new versions of Ling, Chien-Po and Yao are mere shadows of their original characters.

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Yifei Lui as Hua Mulan in MULAN (2020, d. Niki Caro)

Where Mulan unquestionably shines brightest is in its presentation, practically showing off just how expensive the film was in every frame. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is jaw-droppingly beautiful throughout, bursting with colour and capturing striking imagery rarely seen in western productions. The production design, costumes, and make-up are all on-point, bringing this heightened version of Ancient China to life that perfectly balances the theatrical with the realistic. Much criticism has been aimed at the decision to excise the musical numbers of the original and, whilst they are missed, they absolutely wouldn’t have meshed with the film’s new aesthetic. However, the melodies from those songs are often integrated into Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, turning “Reflection” from a touching ballad into a fist-pumping moment in the heat of battle. Speaking of, the fight choreography on display is absolutely fantastic. The wuxia influence here is especially felt as characters run up walls or balance on spears, and it all flows together so well whilst the camera wisely pulls back to capture the action in all its glory. There are a few odd editing decisions here and there, but otherwise this is a technically outstanding film that meshes eastern and western cinema traditions into a magnificent package.

The new Mulan is an exciting and gorgeously executed reimagining that finds strong but subtle ways to improve on its inspiration. It may lack the approachable charm of the animated film, but it’s very clear that it isn’t trying to be. This is an action movie first and foremost, and as one it succeeds in delivering awesome set pieces and stunning visuals, whilst also adding some welcome nuance and updates to the film’s messages of female empowerment. The tonal shift and lack of songs may upset purists looking for a more faithful retelling of the original, but a beat-for-beat live action remake would have been redundant when the 1998 film is great as is. By taking the film in a distinct direction, it avoids this problem and creates a fresh experience for both fans and newcomers. If you like your Mulan with all the music and Mushu intact, you can watch the original. However, if a version that’s essentially a superhero movie as directed by Zhang Yimou sounds interesting to you, Niki Caro’s Mulan is well worth a watch.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10