BLACK WIDOW – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Cate Shortland (Lore)

Writer: Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong)

Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

THE TOMORROW WAR – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie)

Writer: Zach Dean (24 Hours to Live)

Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes

Release Date: 2nd July (Amazon Prime)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

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

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

Director: Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond)

Writer: Daniel Casey (Kin) & Justin Lin

Runtime: 2 hours 25 minutes

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

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

F9: The Fast Saga (2021) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

LUCA – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Enrico Casarosa (La Luna)

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

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 18th June (Disney+)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

IN THE HEIGHTS – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)

Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes

Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes

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

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

In the Heights (2021) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

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 Fred 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