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

A QUIET PLACE PART II – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), Cillian Murphy (Sunshine), Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), Noah Jupe (Honey Boy), Djimon Hounsou (Shazam!), John Krasinski (Jack Ryan)

Writer/Director: John Krasinski (A Quiet Place)

Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes

Release Date: 28th May (US), 4th June (UK)

A Quiet Place was a pretty good movie, wasn’t it? Yes, it was overhyped at the time and the writing left a lot to be desired when it came to logic, but it had a compelling premise packed with potential, great performances, solid direction, and tension so taut you could strum it like a deathly nervous guitarist. Whilst it ended in a manner that left the door open for sequels, it didn’t demand one and stood well enough on its own as a simple tale of a family trying to survive in a world where any sound could lead to your demise. With that said, A Quiet Place Part II is a solid enough follow-up that matches the quality of its predecessor in every way, but ultimately can’t help but feel insubstantial in comparison.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021) - Posters — The Movie Database (TMDb)

After an impressive prologue flashback that unfortunately loses some impact when you know everyone important makes it out OK, Part II picks up right where the first film left off and continues almost seamlessly from there. One of the great strengths of A Quiet Place was its simple and contained story, focusing in on the characters and letting environmental storytelling tell you what you needed to know about the world and its rules. The sequel, meanwhile, takes on a more adventurous story reminiscent of Children of Men or The Last of Us, traipsing beyond the farmhouse setting of the original and exploring more of this post-apocalypse. There’s some interesting world building as it establishes what other fates befell humanity outside of the Abbott family, but none of it is explored in much detail beyond the bare bones necessary to serve the plot.

When you actually get down to the bones of it, Part II does very little to actually move the story forward, ending on a note almost identical to its predecessor in what’s more of an extrapolation of the first film rather than a brand-new tale. That said, John Krasinski’s direction remains strong throughout, with excellent pacing that keeps the film breezy whilst slowing down at all the right moments to keep you on tender hooks. Everything that worked about the first film is here intact, but that’s all it really is: the same scares and tricks, just slightly bigger and in slightly different scenarios.

A Quiet Place Part II' review: John Krasinski's sequel takes a bigger step  into the world beyond the original - CNN
(from left to right) Millicent Simmonds as Regan Abbott and Emily Blunt as Evelyn Abbott in A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021, d. John Krasinski)

The first film may have sold itself on the star power of celebrity couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, but the real breakout star of A Quiet Place was Millicent Simmonds as Regan. She delivered a nuanced and heart-breaking performance, all without any verbal communication, creating an iconic character who just happened to be deaf. Simmonds is given centre stage in the sequel and continues to impress, playing a more mature and proactive Regan that firmly eschews so many stereotypes about disabled characters in blockbusters. She is partnered up with Cillian Murphy as the reclusive survivor Emmett for much of the film and, whilst the character isn’t given a great deal of depth, his performance is solid and his strained relationship with Regan is endearing as they learn to trust and communicate.

Blunt and Noah Jupe are mostly relegated to a B-plot after the first act, which plays out as just a rehash of the first film in a new location, but they do the best they can with what material they have. There are a lot more human characters this time around, but they are mostly perfunctory roles. Krasinski’s role as Lee Abbott being relegated to the prologue makes sense, but it’s odd to see so many great character actors be given blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. Scoot McNairy and Okieriete Onaodowan show up for one scene each as a bandit and a cop respectively (McNairy doesn’t even get a line), whilst Djimon Hounsou is at least given something of a character for what little time he has on screen. Seriously, Hollywood: can we let Hounsou play more than sidekicks, henchmen and other incidental characters? Yeah, he’s great at being menacing or spouting exposition, but he’s worth far more than that.

A First Look At Cillian Murphy's Character In 'A Quiet Place Part II'
(from left to right) Cillian Murphy as Emmett and Djimon Hounsou as Man on the Island in A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021, d. John Krasinski)

On a technical level, Part II is an on par with its first entry as it is narratively. The cinematography is strong throughout with moody lighting and some iconic-looking frames. The use of tracking cameras in the prologue works especially well in ramping up the tension, culminating in a spectacular in-car shot as Blunt attempts to escape the chaos of the first alien attack. The production design continues to mostly rely on expected iconography from post-apocalypse stories, though there continues to be nice little nods to how the world has adapted to minimise noises. However, it’s the sound design where the film really places its focus and makes every crunch of footsteps or turning of a doorknob drip with intensity. Marco Beltrami’s score this time around feels mostly reused from the first film’s themes, but it’s still effective and used sparingly; as before, the scariest moments are those that have as little audio as possible.

A Quiet Place Part II feels more like an expansion pack than a full sequel, reusing assets to tell a brief epilogue that doesn’t move the story forward very far. It doesn’t do anything particularly worse than the first film, but neither does it do anything truly better, and that can’t help but make it feel like a disappointment. It really is just more of the same, and if that’s all you’re after there is an enjoyable 90-minute horror romp to be had here, but it does very little to justify itself as a new experience. If this franchise is going to keep going, it needs to find a new angle or change up the formula before it becomes completely predictable. That seems to be on the cards, with a spin-off written directed by Mud and Midnight Special helmsman Jeff Nichols currently set for release in 2023, and hopefully that fresh perspective will breathe some new life into the series. Part II really needed to be the Aliens to the first film’s Alien, but it’s instead more of an Alien 3: it sticks to the basics with some interesting new concepts, but it’s not developed enough to be anything more than adequately satisfying.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

CRUELLA – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Emma Stone (La La Land), Emma Thompson (Late Night), Joel Fry (Yesterday), Paul Walter Hauser (BlacKkKlansman), John McCrea (God’s Own Country), Emily Beecham (Daphne), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Kayvan Novak (Paddington), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place)

Director: Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya)

Writers: Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite)

Runtime: 2 hours 14 minutes

Release Date: 28th May (US, UK, Disney+)

It seems Disney can’t really win when it comes to these reboots and reimaginings. Stick too close to the source material, and they end up with basically the exact same film with a shinier coat of paint. Do something original, and what we get is something that misses the point of its inspiration entirely. This was the fate that befell Maleficent, a contentious retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story that turned its titular mistress of evil into a PTSD-fuelled anti-hero pissed off at her ex, and now Disney has decided to give another of its villains a similar makeover. However, Cruella de Vil presents a greater issue in humanisation than even Maleficent because her villainy is far too human. She’s not just a criminal, but an animal abuser and attempted murderer fuelled by greed and narcissism; turning that into someone you can sympathise with is a tall order. Cruella at least seems aware of its problematic origins but, along with pretty much everything about the film, it handles it in a disappointingly sloppy manner.

Cruella (2021) - IMDb

Cruella takes cues from a lot of different films to create its bizarre identity, but if I had to narrow it down to a few, it’s Solo: A Star Wars Story mixed with The Devil Wears Prada with a dash of Ocean’s Eleven and a little A Hard Day’s Night on the side. On the surface level, there’s a lot to like about it despite its patchwork nature. It’s certainly too long at over two hours, but it has an infectious camp energy that keeps it from ever being boring. There’s some standout set pieces, some good gags and just a lot of buoyant and cathartic fun, but it ultimately means very little when the core of the film is so formulaic, inconsistent and awkward. Whilst it’s very clear that Cruella doesn’t take itself too seriously, the story expects you to buy into a lot of absurd reveals and twists; its inciting conceit, one which spurs our protagonist’s main motivation, is one of those that may turn off many audiences before the movie can even get started. The plot from there is best described as episodic and scattershot, lurching from point to point in a manner that makes it feel like they’re just making up the story as they go. This indecision comes majorly into play when addressing its source material, and by its end it still can’t decide if it wants to be a functional prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians or some alt-universe revisionist reboot. It’s all emblematic of a film that shoots for the moon aesthetically and tonally, but in terms of story and character always defaults to the easiest, cowardly option. Director Craig Gillespie was a great choice for this material and he’s clearly having a lot of fun with it, but the lazy and unfocused screenplay is ultimately what lets it all down.

Cruella Looks Like Disney Selling 2 Different Movies in Trailers | Observer
Emma Stone as Estella Miller/Cruella de Vil in CRUELLA (2021, d. Craig Gillespie)

The very obvious reason Disney opted to go with a prequel/reboot rather than a traditional remake is that they already did that back in 1996 and, whether you like that film or not, Glenn Close’s performance as Cruella is iconic and hard to top. Putting aside her questionable English accent, Emma Stone does a lot to make the role her own, creating a dynamic and boisterous character who’s a blast to watch. The film’s new conceit is that the character essentially has dissociative identity disorder, flitting between the calm and calculated Estella and her cruel, egotistical alter ego Cruella. It’s a divisive choice to be sure, but Stone does admirably in making the two personalities distinct beyond a wig and eyeliner. What ultimately scuppers this Cruella is once again how it tries to have its cake and eat it with her more devious nature. Reframing the character as a desperate orphan who just wants to make it in the fashion industry is one thing, but completely retconning her animal abuse and trying to playing it off in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” fashion is a total cop out. In fact, if you take away all the iconography, the character barely resembles Cruella de Vil anymore, and the film might have been better if it had dropped the pretence and made it an original story…but that wouldn’t be as marketable.

Luckily, one of the film’s biggest saving graces is its supporting cast, all of whom clearly understood the assignment. Emma Thompson has an absolute ball chewing the scenery as the psychotic Baroness, imbuing the deliciously evil role with the energy of a panto dame doing a Miranda Priestly impression. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser make for a great double act as Cruella’s partners-in-crime Jasper and Horace, whilst John McCrea steals what few scenes he has as fashionista Artie. Even some of the smaller roles, like Jamie Demetriou as Estella’s snooty manager at the department store, or Andrew Leung as the Baroness’ curt assistant, imbue the film with a lot of campy fun. Mark Strong is well-suited to the role of Thompson’s valet yet perhaps a little overqualified for such a perfunctory role, whilst Kayvan Novak and Kirby Howell-Baptiste put in decent performances but add very little but to be yet another unnecessary call-back to the original film.

Cruella 2021: The Plot, Trailer, Release Date & Everything We Know |  British Vogue
Emma Thompson as Baroness von Hellman in CRUELLA (2021, d. Craig Gillespie)

As previously said, Cruella absolutely goes for it when it comes to the aesthetics and, judged purely by its looks, it is a gorgeously crafted picture. The costumes, hair and make-up alone make it worth watching, with iconic fashion moments that will surely inspire many a Disney fan’s cosplay at their next fan convention. The cinematography is grand and playful, and the production design is theatrical and kitschy in all the best ways. With that said, as good as the film looks, its somewhat marred by how it sounds. Cruella apparently has a score by Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, but you’d be hard pressed to realize that because the film’s music is made up almost entirely by 60s/70s rock and pop songs. If you thought Suicide Squad abused needle drops, you have seen nothing until you’ve seen Cruella and its three dozen licensed tracks, each playing one after the other in rapid succession, often making the film feel more like an overlong music video than a narrative feature. All of the song choices are great, even if a lot of them are super on-the-nose (e.g.: as soon as they start blaring “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges, you should know what’s coming), but great songs do not always necessarily equal a great soundtrack.

I honestly wish I could like Cruella, because it is stylish and pretty and a lot of fun in the moment, but it’s a hot mess when you think about it for more than a second. There’s a lot here that works and it’s clear much of the cast and crew threw their all into it, but it fails to find a satisfying solution to the inherent problem of making a Cruella de Vil origin story. More than any of Disney’s recent live-action efforts, this feels like a marketing exercise; a way to revise the Cruella character and make it OK for kids to buy gothy branded merchandise without having to acknowledge the elephant in the room that she’s a literal canine killer. I can understand why certain audiences may be able to overlook all of its flaws and just embrace it as glitzy, meaningless entertainment, but it’s far too artificial and calculated to enjoy on that level; it’s the cinematic equivalent of a bank-sponsored Pride parade float. Wake me up when they turn this into a so-bad-its-good jukebox stage musical, and maybe then I’ll get on board. Otherwise, just wait for this to leave Premium Access on Disney+ or don’t even bother.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

ARMY OF THE DEAD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Omari Hardwick (Power), Ana de la Reguera (Eastbound & Down), Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy), Mattias Schweighöfer (Valkyrie), Nora Arnezeder (Safe House), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat), Tig Notaro (One Mississippi), Raúl Castillo (El Chicano), Huma Qureshi (Viceroy’s House), Garret Dillahunt (Burn Notice)

Director: Zack Snyder (Man of Steel)

Writers: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) and Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword)

Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes

Release Date: 21st May (Netflix)

Zack Snyder stepped onto the public stage with his divisive remake of Dawn of the Dead, reimagining George Romero’s classic with fast-moving zombies and a more abrasive sense of humour courtesy of James Gunn’s screenplay (it also had some bizarre Islamophobic and homophobic undertones that weren’t in the original or Gunn’s script, which…yeah, not cool). Now, after having spent much of his following career adapting comic books, Snyder has returned to the world of the undead and the concept that began its life as the sequel to his Dawn. It’s got everything you could possibly want from a Snyder movie: slow motion, excessive violence, sad covers of classic rock and pop songs, a bloated running time, and unconvincing attempts at sentimentality. However, despite all these excesses, it also has a sense of self-restraint that so few vanity projects have, as well as something Snyder so rarely allows his movies to be: gratuitous, unpretentious fun.

Trippy New Poster for Zack Snyder's 'Army of the Dead' Embraces the Las  Vegas Setting - Bloody Disgusting

Army of the Dead is a film that relies far more on premise that it does story or even plot. The screenplay is mostly an excuse to get a diverse cast of bold personalities into a zombie-infested Las Vegas, but that doesn’t mean no care has been put into crafting a coherent narrative. The first act is easily the film’s weakest as, after fifteen minutes of prologue and opening titles, the inciting incident is immediately dropped on us and then its just a mad dash to introduce the entire cast and their motivations. However, once our heroes cross the barrier into the quarantine zone, the film really ups the ante in terms of set pieces and exploring its unique take on zombie lore. The pacing is strong from here on out and rarely feels its two-hour-plus length, striking a strong balance between action, tension and character. There’s not a great deal of startling plot twists, poignant character moments or intriguing commentary to discuss, but there is some solid banter and one-liners, as well as a few unsubtle digs at the Trump administration. This puts it at a disadvantage to something like Mad Max: Fury Road, which it is clearly trying to emulate at times, especially in how it builds the tribal culture of the Alpha Zombies.

That said, Army of the Dead has no real pretentions about being something deeper, and cashes in all its chips on “fun” and “cool”. It is undoubtedly a movie where you can turn off your brain and enjoy the carnage, but it has enough intriguing concepts that you don’t necessarily have to, and it never has to succumb to being dumb or offensive to do so. Unfortunately, the ending does leave a lot to be desired. There are bunch of character threads that are abruptly cut short or never resolved, the emotional pay off is cliched and underdeveloped, and its final coda is somehow both preposterous and predictable. Snyder and Netflix clearly have big plans for Army of the Dead as a flagship franchise, having pre-emptively greenlit both a spin-off feature and an animated series, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a lot of potential for this to be a creative sandbox for undead stories, but it falls into the trap of mistaking leaving its first film unfinished with enticing audiences with more. As much as I’m intrigued by the prospect of more, I prefer movies can do that while still being completely satisfying on their own.

Army of the Dead Review: Zack Snyder's Netflix Zombie Heist Movie Needs a  Bullet to the Brain | NDTV Gadgets 360
Richard Cetrone as Zeus and Omari Hardwick as Vanderhoe in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

It may seem crazy at first to mash up a zombie movie with a heist film, but both genres have one big thing in common: they are only as good as their characters and how they play off each other. Army of the Dead thankfully nails this camaraderie and pulls together a team that captures a dynamic most analogous to the Fast & Furious crew. Dave Bautista is as charismatic as ever as team leader Scott Ward, but he is unfortunately saddled with being the straight man for much of the film, and his motivations are a pretty basic “reconnect with my daughter” storyline that goes how you’d expect. Ella Purnell as said daughter Kate puts in a solid performance, sitting right on that line between righteous and reckless and just about avoids being another damsel in distress. Ana de la Reguera’s Maria and Omari Hardwick’s Vanderhoe are pretty fun but very underdeveloped, whilst Theo Rossi puts in a great creep performance as the predatory refugee guard Burt.

Raúl Castillo is a blast as cocky YouTuber Mikey but doesn’t get enough screen time, which applies to an even greater degree to Samantha Win as his buddy Chambers; at least she gets a pretty standout action sequence as compensation. Hiroyuki Sanada is only there to motivate the plot as shady billionaire Tanaka, and it’s easy to see where Garret Dillahunt as his protégé Martin is going to go from a mile away. Nora Arnezeder is a standout as the stoic guard Lily, mining a charming and badass performance out of a character who could have been easily perfunctory; I just wish she got a little more development. Tig Notaro brings her trademark sarcastic wit to the role of helicopter pilot Marianne and has great repartee with the rest of the cast; this in spite of the fact most of her footage was shot in isolated reshoots. The obvious MVP, though, is clearly Mattias Schweighöfer as the timid safecracker Ludwig Dieter. An audience surrogate done right, he is equally funny and relatable as he darts between horror, confusion and glee at the situation he’s found himself in, and the relationship between him and Hardwick is a nice subtle mini-arc. It’s easy to see why they’ve chosen Dieter to lead the already-shot spin-off.

Army of the Dead' Film Review: Zack Snyder Returns to His Zombie Roots, So  There's That
Nora Arnezeder as Lily (The Coyote) and Dave Bautista as Scott Ward in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

It’s rare to see a zombie movie made on a blockbuster scale. The only other example that comes to mind is World War Z, which ended up making a lot of concessions on violence to be viable to Hollywood. Luckily, this being a Netflix production, such worries aren’t a problem and Army of the Dead is left free to blow its budget as well as undead brains. The action sequences are a lot of gory fun and feature some pretty unique kills that will equally make you laugh and squirm, the production design is Apocalypse 101 but done with grandeur you rarely get in the genre, and the cinematography by Snyder himself is beautiful and tacky in all the right ways; it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Michael Bay zombie flick. Tom Holkenborg’s score is as solid and pumping as ever, the soundtrack choices are on-the-nose but enjoyable regardless, and the special effects meld practical and digital so well as to make them often indistinguishable. Honestly, the only CG that stood out as dodgy were the occasional seams in how Notaro has been stitched into the film in post-production.

Army of the Dead is simultaneously everything you’d expect from a Zack Snyder film and yet a massive evolution to his approach to filmmaking. For the first time since his debut, he hasn’t made something overly self-serious, deconstructive or tonally confused, and without that baggage his positive qualities are allowed to shine. This is no-holds-barred sandbox filmmaking and, whilst it doesn’t completely hold together, it delivers entertainment where it counts. Unlike so many other filmmakers who’ve given into their worst instincts when allowed complete freedom by Netflix, Snyder of all people found the discipline to practice a little restraint and put fun first. With this and his cut of Justice League, 2021 is a good year to be Zack Snyder.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Amy Adams (Arrival), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Fred Hechinger (News of the World), Wyatt Russell (22 Jump Street), Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Director: Joe Wright (Atonement)

Writer: Tracy Letts (August: Osage County)

Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes

Release Date: 14th May (Netflix)

A story about a woman struggling with mental health whilst being trapped in her own home doesn’t sound as interesting as it would have two years ago, does it? The paranoic chills of The Woman in the Window might have hit harder if it had released in cinemas as intended back in October 2019, but this is yet another Hollywood project that’s been through the wringer of test screenings and reshoots before being dumped unceremoniously at Netflix’s doorstep. When that happens despite the film’s distinguished creative team, Oscar-calibre cast and being based on a popular novel, it’s very easy to presume the film is a complete flop. Unfortunately in this case, and very much like the movie itself, that first presumption is ultimately the correct one.

The Woman in the Window (2021) - IMDb

The Woman in the Window makes no secret of its influences at any point. In its opening moments, it borrows the foreboding tracking shots and moody lighting of David Fincher thrillers, and a scene from Rear Window playing on a television telegraphs its obvious inspiration from the Alfred Hitchcock classic. These alone wouldn’t make The Woman in the Window a bad movie, as even some of the greatest films have been homages to other stories. The problem is that the plot is fashioned almost entirely out of the scraps of other, better films, and doesn’t even use those ideas to say anything particularly interesting.

What follows will be utterly predictable to anyone with even a mild interest in mystery thrillers, as trope after trope is thrown at the screen, with the only surprises being the result of assuming the filmmakers wouldn’t stoop so low as to be that obvious. The story itself is told well enough cinematically, and by the midpoint it does a commendable job of ramping up the tension and fear that puts you in the mindset of its unreliable protagonist. However, after a stunningly facepalm-worthy second act twist, the film only further spirals into a final reveal and climax that is not only unoriginal but works actively against one of the core themes of the story. For a movie that attempts to sympathise with those struggling with mental illness, it seems surprisingly eager to also jump on stereotypical negative depictions of them. Ultimately though, it’s just a symptom of a movie that is trying far too hard to sensationalise what might have played better if grounded in reality.

Amy Adams Film 'The Woman In The Window' To Release On Netflix
Amy Adams as Anna Fox and Julianne Moore as Jane Russell in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (2021, d. Joe Wright)

With a high-profile director like Joe Wright in the director’s chair, it’s no wonder such a stellar cast assembled for the production, but the results are middling at best. Amy Adams takes centre stage as the titular woman Anna Fox, rarely even leaving the screen for the duration, and she does a solid job with the material given to her. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that Anna isn’t exactly lucid, and Adams is great at making her sympathetic and putting you into her confused mindset, even managing to pull some humour in the midst of its darkest moments. Also providing strong supporting performances are Wyatt Russell as Anna’s beleaguered lodger David and the prolific Brian Tyree Henry (seriously, isn’t he in everything these days?) as the compassionate Detective Little. Anthony Mackie even manages to put in some decent work despite spending most of the plot as a voice on the phone.

The rest of the cast don’t fare as well. Gary Oldman, having recently won his Oscar working with Wright on Darkest Hour, flips back to his scenery-chewing ways as the cantankerous Alastair Russell. It’s a performance that seems like it was pulled from an even more exaggerated film than this, with Oldman delivering every line in either a foreboding whisper or an abusive yell. Julianne Moore also seems to be acting at a slightly higher dial than everyone else, immediately signalling there’s something more sinister about her character, whilst Jeanine Serralles is aggravating as the stereotypical dismissive victim-blaming cop, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is relegated to a mere prop; methinks her role was one of the main victims of the extensive reshoots. However, the film’s biggest liability both story and acting-wise is Fred Hechinger as Oldman’s son Ethan. Whilst never outright stated, the character has been clearly coded as on the autism spectrum, and Hechinger’s performance ticks every trope on the checklist. It’s hard to elaborate further without going into major story spoilers, but any savvy viewer only has to watch his first scene with Adams and imagine the worst and most obvious thing they could do with the character, because that’s what happens to him.

The Woman in the Window (2021) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Amy Adams as Anna Fox and Ben Hechinger as Ethan Russell in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (2021, d. Joe Wright)

Even in his more regrettable projects, Joe Wright always manages to make a great-looking movie if not necessarily a great-feeling one. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes the most of the film’s restricted setting and photographs Anna’s empty house in an artful and elegant way; by the film’s end, you practically have the house’s floor plan burned into your head. Danny Elfman’s score is also suitably eerie and foreboding, and the film’s scattered editing adds to the uneasiness whenever Anna’s mental state starts to deteriorate.

The Woman in the Window is too well-made on a technical level to be a complete disaster, but good cinematography and some decent performances can’t save a story constructed by stitching together pieces of every other mystery thriller ever. Joe Wright is certainly better at impersonating David Fincher than he was aping Baz Luhrmann with Pan, but even so this screams of a film made by a reluctant journeyman looking for a paycheque. It’s often too easy to assume every troubled production inevitably results in a bad film when that is far from the case, but subpar movies like The Woman in the Window are what reinforce that misconception. With such a glut of great comparable films already available on Netflix and other streaming services, you’d be better off watching one of those than this disposable dreck.

FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/10

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

STOWAWAY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Daniel Dae Kim (Raya and the Last Dragon), Shamier Anderson (Wynonna Earp), Toni Collette (Hereditary)

Director: Joe Penna (Arctic)

Writers: Joe Penna & Ryan Morrison (Arctic)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 22nd April (Netflix)

The best science fiction always has a quandary at the centre of its premise. Whether philosophical, scientific, social or any other area of thought, they are narrative experiments that explore what if scenarios that can reflect our reality or hypothesize new ones. Stowaway is very much a classic example of this, exploring the age-old moral question of “can we value one life over others?” The final answer this film presents is solid but underwhelming, resulting in a film held together mainly by its splendid cast and one incredibly tense set piece.

Netflix's STOWAWAY Official Trailer and Poster Revealed

Stowaway sits comfortable between the slow-burn contemplation of films like Silent Running and Ad Astra and the high drama thrills of Gravity and The Martian, though it certainly leans more towards the former. It has a small enough cast and a scenario so basic it could be staged as a play without losing too much of its dramatic heft. It takes about a quarter of the way through its runtime before the central hook takes hold, and from then on, the story tightly focuses on solving the ethical conundrum presented by its titular stowaway. The film does an admirable job of demonstrating the emotional weight of the problems this variable raises, but unfortunately the drama remains pretty subdued and unexciting for the most part. The conflict, whilst perhaps more genuine, is tepid by cinematic standards and leaves much of the second act feeling dry.

Thankfully, the movie finally hits its peak in the third act with an incredibly thrilling sequence as two of our astronauts are forced to climb across the delicate hull of their ship. There’s a palpable intensity and fear present here that just isn’t present anywhere else in the film and, whilst certainly not on the same scale as Alfonso Cuaron’s aforementioned space thriller, manages to invoke a similar sense of existential dread. The final payoff of the premise is sadly too expected, answering its question in a way that makes much of the preceding story feel like filler, but it at least manages to get in a few moments of excitement before it comes to its perfunctory conclusion.

Stowaway (2021) - IMDb
Anna Kendrick as Zoe Levenson in STOWAWAY (2021, d. Joe Penna)

Any good bottle story relies on the dynamics of the trapped characters and, whilst Stowaway definitely has a stellar cast, the people they are tasked with playing are far less so. The biggest flaw in this regard is in how it treats its titular character Michael (Shamier Anderson). Another movie might have made him the central character, but too often he’s treated more like a prop than a human being, which works counteractively to the emotional core of the story. It certainly doesn’t help that Anderson, whilst delivering a solid performance with what little material he has, pales in comparison to the rest of the cast. Anna Kendrick is instead the film’s nominal lead as optimistic doctor Zoe, and her buoyant but grounded performance easily makes her the most relatable of the bunch, but her arc still feels somewhat underdeveloped.

Toni Collette is as brilliant as ever as ship captain Marina but she too is a little lacking in depth, mainly tasked with providing exposition and being frustrated by the off-screen ground team. The most dynamic and interesting performance easily comes from Daniel Dae Kim as biologist David, who brings a much-needed intensity to the most tepid proceedings. A weaker film would have easily turned him into an antagonist, but Kim grounds his character with motivations and backstory that justify his more questionable behaviour. He steals every scene he’s in, and is yet another example of how underrated Kim is as an actor.

Stowaway - movie: where to watch streaming online
Daniel Dae Kim as David Kim in STOWAWAY (2021, d. Joe Penna)

Whilst no formal budget has been made public, Stowaway is certainly working with a lot less money than most of its contemporaries, but it makes good use of what it has. The small and claustrophobic nature of its spacecraft setting is simple but well-realised, with a lot of long takes that float across the whole set emphasising how cramped it really is. The special effects are refreshingly minimal but are more than effective, with the aforesaid third-act set piece being the main venue where they take centre stage, whilst the score by Hauschka isn’t particularly standout but does effectively evoke the film’s solemn yet hopeful mood.

Stowaway is the definition of a serviceable film: engaging and competently-made enough to watch, but lacking anything that really makes it stand out. It’s far from a waste of time and it has moments where it truly comes to life, but it’s hard to recommend when there are so many similar but better films out there that are just as easy to watch. To put it simply: if this movie was trapped on a spaceship with Gravity, The Martian and Ad Astra, and I had to sacrifice one to save the others, I would shoot Stowaway out of the airlock in a heartbeat. I’d feel pretty sad and guilty about it, but it would be the only obvious choice.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

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