GODZILLA VS. KONG – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Adam Wingard (The Guest)

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

Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes

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

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

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Zack Snyder (Watchmen)

Writer: Chris Terrio (Argo)

Runtime: 4 hours 2 minutes

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

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

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

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – an Alternative Lens review

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

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

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

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

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

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

Raya And The Last Dragon' Review: Disney On Autopilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


COMING 2 AMERICA – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Craig Brewer (Dolemite Is My Name)

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

Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes

Release Date: 5th March (Amazon Prime)

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

New Coming 2 America Poster Features New and Familiar Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WONDER WOMAN 1984 – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Patty Jenkins (Monster)

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

Runtime: 2 hours 31 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MULAN – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)

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

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 4th September (Disney+)

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

Mulan (2020) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

Pin on HD Film Streaming VF
Yifei Lui as Hua Mulan in MULAN (2020, d. Niki Caro)

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

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


THE NEW MUTANTS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Anya Taylor-Joy (Split), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Alice Braga (Predators), Blu Hunt (Another Life), Henry Zaga (Looking for Alaska), Adam Beach (Suicide Squad)

Director: Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars)

Writers: Josh Boone & Knate Lee (Kidnap)

Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes

Release Date: 28th August (US), 4th September (UK)

In our current reality where the cinematic calendar is constantly shifting, The New Mutants is like the hipster lurking in the back watching and laughing: it was constantly pushing back its release date before it was the norm. Originally slated for release in April 2018, this X-Men spin-off was repeatedly kicked from slot to slot for over two years due to planned reshoots that never happened and complications related to the Disney/Fox merger, finally given a firm date of April 2020 before COVID-19 hit it like almost every other major release. Finally in cinemas whilst the pandemic still afflicts the world and its own franchise having died over a year ago, there were many theories running about the internet as The New Mutants sat on the shelf that it was so unwatchable that it may never see the light of day. However, after having finally witnessed this mythic film, it’s safe to say that it isn’t some unsalvageable abomination. It’s actually just…fine.

New “The New Mutants” posters : movies

There were several reports before release that claimed that all references to Fox’s X-Men films had been excised from the final cut of The New Mutants, supposedly so the film could be retroactively placed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe should Disney want to. Those reports, much like a lot of the rumours surrounding the film, are bunkum. The film not only mentions the X-Men several times, but actually ties into the events of Apocalypse and Logan, in the process typing up some dangling plot threads from the prior films. However, those pieces of continuity are relatively minor, as The New Mutants is otherwise a standalone story set almost entirely in one location. The film is something of a mash-up of teen coming-of-age movie and horror flick, most comparable to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but unfortunately neither element is particularly exemplary.

The teen angst stuff works well enough on its own, with director Josh Boone’s experience on films like The Fault in Our Stars and Stuck in Love evident in the grounded performances and tender exchanges; if only these moments had more time to breathe. Meanwhile, the horror elements are extremely lacklustre and barely even worth a hair raise. For a film whose premise is based around people’s fears being brought to life, there’s not any particularly frightful images or haunting concepts here that aren’t cliché, with the filmmakers’ imagination of horror extending only about as far as ‘Slender Man in a tacky silk shirt.’ With that said, in spite of the tepid scares, the film ultimately works somehow. The pacing is solid, the storytelling is efficient if a little rushed, the third act is exciting when it finally arrives, and its themes of overcoming trauma and rejection hit home. Those planned reshoots may have been helpful, especially if they used them to either amp up the horror or bolster the character development, but the final product is far from terrible. Compared to many of the big budget X-Men films with their bombastic scale and lack of respect for the source material, The New Mutants is competently made by comparison.

New Promo Spot for THE NEW MUTANTS Features the Cast Discussing the Story  and Their Characters — GeekTyrant
(from left to right) Maisie Williams as Rahne Sinclair, Henry Zaga as Roberto da Costa, Blu Hunt as Dani Moonstar, Charlie Heaton as Sam Guthrie, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin in THE NEW MUTANTS (2020, d. Josh Boone)

The film may give Maisie Williams top billing due to her being the biggest star, and the marketing focuses most on Anya Taylor-Joy because her character’s powers are the most visually impressive, but the protagonist of The New Mutants is actually Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar. Hunt delivers a perfectly fine central performance, but Moonstar is a bit of a blank slate and she has little to work with given how the story obstructs much of her true nature. Where Hunt shines is in her scenes with Williams, who plays the religiously-conflicted lycanthrope Rahne. The two have solid chemistry and just enough screen time together to cement a solid relationship, easily taking the crown of best LGBTQ+ representation in a mainstream superhero film. Then again, given the level of competition so far, that’s not exactly hard.

Taylor-Joy is as captivating an actor as ever, even though the characterisation of Illyana is a tad all over the place. She’s presented as this arrogant and frigid bully compensating for her inner trauma, but not only is her backstory wildly complicated compared to her peers and not explained too well, but her demeanour very suddenly shifts in the third act because the story needs her in action mode. The skeleton of a solid arc is there for Illyana, but it feels like there’s a few key steps missing. Charlie Heaton is somewhat wasted as Sam, his only distinguishing characteristic being his inconsistent Kentucky accent that fluctuates from non-existent to Benoit Blanc between scenes, whilst Henry Zaga’s Roberto is…there. Alice Braga is fine enough as Cecilia Reyes, but her characterisation is also slightly unclear; is she a good person forced into doing bad things, or a bad person hiding behind a kind exterior? The only other character of note is Adam Beach in a brief role as Dani’s father, and…wait, Marilyn Manson was the voice of one of the monsters? Huh. That’s an odd bit of trivia for you.

New Mutants Shows Off Anya Taylor-Joy, Villains, More – Worlds Greatest  Detective
Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin in THE NEW MUTANTS (2020, d. Josh Boone)

The New Mutants is by no means a terrible looking film, but for a production that allegedly cost $80 million, it looks like one that barely spent a quarter of that. For comparison, the first Deadpool cost just under $60 million, and that film had dozens of sets, bigger name stars and extensive CGI. Much of the film takes place in the halls of a hospital but, unlike Fox’s similarly confined Fantastic Four reboot, the restrictive locale works to film’s scale and tone. The cinematography by Peter Deming is suitably moody and grounded, giving the picture an indie quality that helps separate it from its big-budget cousins, and the visual effects are for the most part well-designed if not flawlessly executed; Illyana’s Magik powers and the film’s final boss in particular stand out. The film’s most underwhelming technical aspect is the film’s score, composed by Mark Snow of The X-Files fame. The music is almost unnoticeable, sounding barely above the generic royalty-free horror tracks you can find online, and its lack of oomph only makes the moments of horror fall even flatter.

Despite its many faults, The New Mutants is a distinct and enjoyable little superhero movie, and with some tweaks it could have been the breath of fresh air the genre needed. In its clearly undercooked released form and under intense scrutiny after two years of build-up, it’s something of a miracle that it’s as decent as it is. At least we can now put all the wild speculation and memes to rest, and with it the last vestiges of Fox’s mixed handling of the X-Men property. When all is said and done, The New Mutants will end up just being an interesting footnote to a franchise that lasted twenty years, with its troubled production history and cult internet status overshadowing the plucky little film that tried hiding underneath. It might not be worth the hype, but I’d certainly watch it ten times in a row before I even considered watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Dark Phoenix again.


TENET – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Dimple Kapadia (Rudaali), Himesh Patel (Yesterday), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Michael Caine (Get Carter), Clémence Poésy (127 Hours)

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan (Inception)

Runtime: 2 hours 30 mins

Release Date: 26th August (UK), 3rd September (US)

Cinemas in the UK have been open for roughly a month now, but there’s been very little incentive to go back. Partly due to fears about safety, but also just a lack of enticing releases; it’s mostly just been reruns, obscure indies and just generally films that don’t demand being seen on the big screen. Whilst most studios delayed their releases for this year or made them available to stream at home, Tenet was always seen as a certainty for cinematic release, mainly at the behest of Christopher Nolan himself. Known for his passion for the traditional cinema experience, Nolan’s insistence on bringing the film to movie theatres come hell or high water has been seen as the make-or-break moment for these venues. With Disney backing away for now by putting Mulan up for premium streaming, the future of cinemas has been saddled on the shoulders of Tenet, which is both a momentous and frightening prospect.

Even with all of the precautions taken by cinema chains and myself as an audience member, going back to the cinema in the midst of an ongoing pandemic was still a dicey prospect; I won’t lie, my anxiety was high as I sat down and the film finally began. However, even in a socially-distanced theatre with my mask on and being extremely cautious of what I touched, eventually I found myself comfortably back in my home away from home. The only real disappointment of the experience was that, as good as Tenet is in many aspects, I fear it’s ultimately going to be more remembered for the tumultuous nature of its release than for anything in the film itself.

New Tenet Posters Offer a Different Perspective – /Film

Like many Nolan films, Tenet has been marketed in a way to obscure much of the story in secrecy, even down to the exact nature of its time-bending conceit. It’s a tactic that certainly preserves the surprises of the movie, but also makes it incredibly hard to review. The best I can do is say that Tenet does for time travel what Inception did for dreams, so if that film’s approach to its premise left you perplexed or annoyed, this one is probably not for you either. That said, as unique and visually captivating as many aspects of the film are, there is also an unnerving familiarity to the entire production. Much in the same unfortunate vein as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, Christopher Nolan’s style has reached a point where it has stopped being distinctive and started to feel tiresome. The first half of the film is frustratingly slow and dreary, only waking up for brief spurts of action that are cleverly executed but lack audience investment. The dialogue is 90% just exposition as characters exchange unnatural dialogue filled with scientific technobabble and philosophical musings, making it hard to care about the context of anything happening on screen. It’s a difficult film to follow at times; not because its story or ideas are particularly complicated, but because it gets so tedious at points that it is hard to pay attention. As bombastic and fascinating as many of its concepts and set pieces are, it’s all delivered with Nolan’s typical po-faced self-seriousness with nary a trace of humanity, and it just sucks much of the possible fun out of the movie.

However, once it hits the halfway mark and starts really embracing the full potential of its premise, the film not only finds its groove but also retroactively makes the preceding half better in retrospect. The film’s pacing kicks into high gear, the action sequences start being exciting rather than just nifty, and even the characters start to actually come to life as stakes are raised and relationships take interesting turns. Much like Memento or The Prestige, it’s a film that certainly entices you to watch it again for how its revelations recontextualise early scenes, and perhaps with time and reflection its quality may improve. With that said, its early fumbling still handicaps its overall enjoyment in a way Nolan’s previous mind-bending efforts didn’t. In his efforts to top himself, he has ended up making something too complex, focusing so much on crafting the mechanics of his world that he has ended up sacrificing the character, wit and energy that made his other films so consistently entertaining.

Tenet first look: See photos from Christopher Nolan's next movie | EW.com
(from left to right) Elizabeth Debicki as Kat and John David Washington as The Protagonist in TENET (2020, d. Christopher Nolan)

After a filmography mostly featuring white dudes in nice suits as main characters, it’s nice to see Nolan mix it up a bit and make his main character a Black dude in a nice suit. Jokes aside, John David Washington is a charismatic actor and his natural charm does a lot of heavy lifting as Tenet’s nameless lead. He’s something of a blank slate due to the nature of his character’s profession, but Washington brings subtleties to his performance that demonstrates a degree of humanity to this otherwise no-nonsense man on a mission. Elizabeth Debicki is as alluring as ever as Kat, giving easily the most emotionally vulnerable performance in the film as a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, though the film unfortunately boxes her in as a damsel-in-distress until the third act. Kenneth Branagh makes for an interesting choice as the film’s villain Sator, clearly having brushed up on his Russian accent since his questionable stab at one in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, giving a brutal and vicious performance but not without completely losing Branagh’s signature magnetism.

There’s a lot of great talent in small supporting roles throughout the film, some of whom only get one or two scenes before disappearing. There’s of course the expected Michael Caine cameo, but there’s also Clémence Poésy in a small role as a scientist who introduces Washington to the time-warping conceit of the plot, Himesh Patel as one of his accomplices, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military figure who arrives late into the second act. Dimple Kapadia, a respected Indian actress unknown to most western audiences, gets more screen time than all of these stars combined, and she delivers a strong performance that makes me hope she gets some more mainstream attention. However, the film’s unquestionable MVP is Robert Pattinson as Washington’s right-hand man Neil. In quite an odd turn, the usually brooding actor ends up being the one easily having the most fun, delivering much of the film’s scant moments of levity and injecting a healthy dose of charisma and emotion into the film. His character is easily the most nuanced in the whole film, and one of the main reasons watching the film again is a compelling prospect.

Robert Pattinson Online on Twitter: "📸 𝐔𝐇𝐐 | New still of Robert  Pattinson in Tenet (𝟸𝟶𝟸𝟶) https://t.co/xCqxLtOT0K… "
(from left to right) Himesh Patel as Mahir, Robert Pattinson as Neil, and John David Washington as The Protagonist in TENET (2020, d. Christopher Nolan)

If you’ve seen any of Christopher Nolan’s films, especially those from Batman Begins onwards, you know what you’re going to get aesthetically, but there have been some noticeable changes behind-the-scenes that slightly alter its flavour. Most notably, the music is composed not by Nolan’s usual choices of Hans Zimmer or David Julyan, but by Ludwig Göransson of Black Panther and The Mandalorian fame. His score takes some inspiration from Zimmer but is noticeably more muted and techno-influenced, giving it slightly grungier and less operatic feel than a typical Nolan score. This change in musical tone is even reflected in the end credits, which play over an original rap song ‘The Plan’ by Travis Scott, that complements Göransson’s compositions beautifully.

The film’s editing, done by Noah Baumbach regular Jennifer Lame rather than Nolan’s usual Lee Smith, is tight and keeps up the tension in all of the right places, whilst the production design is grounded but intricate in much the same vein as Inception or Interstellar. In his third collaboration with Nolan, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is, for the most part, gorgeous and captures the peculiar action sequences in enthralling fashion. The only flaw here is the lighting in scenes set at night, which often threaten to make Washington almost invisible; it seems even the best cinematographers could use some lessons in photographing Black skin.

Tenet is a unique and often stunning film about the nature of time and fate, but it’s ultimately a little too smart for its own good. It’s a difficult film to penetrate even by Nolan’s standards, and though its second half ultimately brings it across the finish line, getting through its slog of a first will be an endurance test for those looking for something more immediately entertaining. It’s certainly far from Nolan’s worst film (I swear, The Dark Knight Rises only gets shoddier every time I watch it), but in comparison to most of his filmography, it is a disappointment. I don’t doubt that many of those willing to go back to cinemas and see Tenet will love it. However, for those still understandably hesitant to venture to the multiplex, I will simply say this: Tenet is not worth rushing out to see anyway.


ARTEMIS FOWL – an Alternative Lens Review

Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell (Love, Rosie), Josh Gad (Frozen), Tamara Smart (The Worst Witch), Nonso Anozie (Cinderella), Colin Farrell (The Gentlemen), Judi Dench (Cats)

Director: Kenneth Branagh (Thor)

Writers: Conor McPherson (The Eclipse) and Hamish McColl (Paddington)

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 12th June (Disney+)

Artemis Fowl is a film that feels like it should have come out at least ten years ago, which makes a lot of sense when you realise it’s been in development since the first instalment of the Eoin Colfer young adult series was published in 2001. In many ways it feels like the ideal time for an Artemis Fowl movie has long passed, but at the same time you’d think it might give it the advantage of hindsight. With so many failed franchises based on fantasy novels to look back on, one might hope they would have finally learned what and what not to do. Unfortunately, the exact opposite has come to pass. Artemis Fowl is perhaps the worst film of its kind since The Last Airbender; a rushed and incoherent insult to its source material that will anger fans and confuse newcomers.

Artemis Fowl (2020) - IMDb

Within the first ten minutes, it’s clear Artemis Fowl has been haphazardly cobbled together and truncated down to 90 minutes in a vain attempt to salvage a troubled production, which has now backfired immensely by Disney’s pandemic-informed decision to throw the film on Disney+ where runtimes don’t really matter. The story is a patchwork of elements from primarily the first two novels, barely held together at the seams by constant narration from Josh Gad’s Mulch Diggums, that flows as smoothly from scene-to-scene as a log smashing against rocks in a high-current stream. The entire film is a never-ending avalanche of exposition as it attempts to cram in every element of this admittedly intriguing sci-fi/fantasy world, with barely a moment to stop for character introspection or even to just marvel at the world. The entire affair just feels empty, as if it was filmed from a barebones placeholder script that they forgot to add interesting dialogue or good jokes to. There’s no genuine heart or emotion going on in any scene in the film, instead simply following the YA formula down to every cliché and just hoping it can emulate its inspirations. Whilst it is perhaps not as thematically insipid as some of its contemporaries, it still ends up being worse than even those films because it had so much more to work with. Artemis Fowl as a series of novels were a unique and exciting take on their genre, and to see it homogenised into just another generic kids’ fantasy film and a poorly-made one at that is an unforgivable insult to the property.

Artemis Fowl' review: Disney+ adaptation loses the magic - Los ...
(from left to right) Nonso Anozie as Domovoi Butler, Lara McDonnell as Holly Short, Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums and Ferdia Shaw as Artemis Fowl in ARTEMIS FOWL (2020, d. Kenneth Branagh)

What really set the books apart from other YA stories was that its protagonist began as the series’ villain. If Alex Rider was for kids wishing they were James Bond, Artemis Fowl was for the kids who wanted to be the Bond villain. He was witty, sly, and intelligent beyond his years whilst still being a child underneath, and that made for a compelling and singular lead character. In the film however, both the script and newcomer Ferdia Shaw completely fail to convey that charisma. Instead, we get a bland and unrelatable Artemis that only pays lip service to his supposed advanced intelligence. Most of what we know about Artemis is told to us by other characters rather than demonstrated, and Shaw’s lacklustre performance absolutely doesn’t help anything. Instead of coming off as cool and calculating, he just feels like a kid reading out lines he doesn’t fully understand, and by the time Artemis proclaims himself a criminal mastermind you absolutely don’t believe it. Lara McDonnell fairs a little better as secondary protagonist Holly Short, but her storyline is little more than yet another variation on the “rookie cop looking for their chance to prove themselves” trope and her relationship with Artemis moves way too fast; I swear, they go from meeting as sworn enemies to becoming best friends in, like, half a day?

Josh Gad gives a bizarre performance as giant dwarf Mulch Diggums, growling his way through the film with an irritating gravelled voice, and if you took out his ever-present narration that spoon-feeds the exposition to you, he’d actually hardly be in it. Nonso Anozie brings some charisma as Fowl’s manservant Butler but is mostly just there as another plot explainer, whilst Tamara Smart as his niece Juliet is…there, I guess? I mean, she is introduced randomly out of nowhere and then proceeds to do nothing but hang around in the background; methinks most her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Colin Farrell’s role as Artemis Fowl Sr. is little more than an extended cameo which he feels on autopilot for, whilst Judi Dench tries to out-gravel Gad with her own raspy drawl as a gender-flipped Commander Root (which normally I’d be in favour of, but making Root a woman means excising Holly’s struggle in the book to overcome the sexism in fairy culture).

Artemis Fowl review – Judi Dench gruffs it out amid rogue fairies ...
Judi Dench as Commander Julius Root in ARTEMIS FOWL (2020, d. Kenneth Branagh)

Whilst Kenneth Branagh is mostly known for his dramas and Shakespeare, he’s directed several blockbusters capably at this point. With a solid sci-fi/fantasy epic like Thor under his belt, you’d think he’d know how to handle another high-concept property, but the truth is there isn’t even a faint whiff of Branagh on this film. Artemis Fowl feels like it could have been directed by any studio shooter, and its few attempts at stylisation bring to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s aforementioned failed attempt at a big budget spectacle. The CGI is competent but unremarkable, whilst the film’s design aesthetic feels bland for a world that, on paper, is bursting with imagination. The only visuals that really stand out are the bizarre ones, like the way Diggums stretches his jaw down to his belly and shoots dirt out of his rear end as he digs. No, really, that happens in the movie. However, if it wasn’t already obvious, the film’s biggest enemy is its editing. It has some of the most egregious cutting in a studio film I’ve ever seen, on par with the likes of Suicide Squad and The Snowman, trimming the film down to the barest of bones and then attempting to cover the seams with constant narration and blatant abuse of ADR, and that’s not even mentioning bizarre flourishes like the several moments it does this weird frame-blurring slow motion effect for no reason. The only technical aspect that is salvageable is Patrick Doyle’s music, which solidly combines Celtic melodies with a more traditional fantasy blockbuster score.

Artemis Fowl is an absolute train wreck from start to finish that makes films like The Golden Compass and The Mortal Instruments look competent by comparison. It completely misunderstands the devilish, cathartic appeal of the source material and tries to instead shove its square peg into the round hole of a generic family adventure fantasy. When it can’t even follow basic storytelling tenants like “show, don’t tell”, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. It seems like every year Disney blows a boatload of money on some ill-advised blockbuster like The Lone Ranger or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but Artemis Fowl absolutely takes the cake this time around. A $125 million waste of a promising franchise, dumped unceremoniously onto their streaming platform, where it will likely be overlooked by children who just want to watch Frozen II again. It’d be funny if it weren’t so depressing.


BIT – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Nicole Maines (Supergirl), Diana Hopper (Goliath), James Paxton (Eyewitness), Zolee Griggs (Wu-Tang: An American Saga), Friday Chamberlain (Fast & Furious 8), Char Diaz (I Got the Hook Up 2)

Writer/Director: Brad Michael Elmore (Boogeyman Pop)

Runtime: 1 hour 34 minutes

Release Date: 24th April (US, UK)

Vampires have been used to tell all kinds of different stories and recontextualised in many different ways. They can be heroes or villains, pure evil or misunderstood victims, filthy vermin or upper-class parasites, disgusting monsters or romantic heartthrobs; in the right context, they can even be funny. Their ubiquitous place in pop culture make them an easy shorthand for making social commentary, and the vampire is most often used as an allegory for class in some fashion. However, when class is in discussion, gender usually isn’t far behind, but oddly there aren’t many feminist vampire movies (the only other one that comes to mind is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and that film is about so much more). With such a ripe gap in the market to fill, Bit couldn’t have been made at a more perfect time and, whilst it has noticeable flaws, it is regardless a unique genre movie that deserves to become a cult classic.

M.C. Gainey, Peter Winther, James Paxton, Zolee Griggs, Julia Voth, Cristina Dunlap, Greg Hill, Ryan Dufrene, Diana Hopper, Joshua Petersen, Brad Michael Elmore, Friday Chamberlain, Robert Reed Peterson, Nicholas Cafritz, Nicole Maines, Char Diaz, Wolfmen Of Mars, Louis Steyn, and T.J. Steyn in Bit (2019)

Though its subject matter may be very 2020, Bit on a tone and aesthetic level casts its mind back to the 80s and 90s. Its story may bring to mind more mainstream teen horror fare like The Lost Boys or The Craft, but in all other aspects it more closely resembles the neon-drenched, Los Angeles-set B movies of the era. It follows the tried-and-true formula of the young adult thrust into the underground supernatural world and coming to terms with their place in it, but Bit separates itself by taking what is usually subtext and making it the text. It is emphatically a film about women repurposing patriarchal power structures and turning them against their oppressors, turning discussions on how class relates to gender into palatable cinema. Whilst it would be easy for Bit to then just indulge in its female empowerment fantasy, it goes above and beyond that shallow reading and critiques its own premise. It questions the line-in-the-sand dichotomy between men and women, the ethics of a ‘taste of their own medicine’ worldview, and highlights that women aren’t exempt from succumbing to and abusing power even if they have good intentions. The final result is essentially an intersectional feminist version of a classic Alex Cox or Larry Cohen picture, mixing high brow and low brow cinematic tastes to create something that has a nostalgic feel but a contemporary mind.

However, the film’s lofty ambitions and thematic success is somewhat hampered by its filmmaking missteps. The screenplay is structurally frontloaded, spending two-thirds of its story setting up everything and then burning through the rest of the narrative in what time it has left. It’s akin to watching a perfect pilot episode to a TV show, but then only experiencing the rest of the first season through CliffsNotes. Whilst most great B movies know their limitations and circumnavigate their time and budget limitations through creative means, Bit ultimately tries to bite off a little more than it can chew. The few action sequences don’t take enough advantage of their premise and are over far too easily, and though billed as a horror film there aren’t any genuine scares (unless you’re haemophobic, because there is a lot of bloodletting). The film ultimately works best as a social commentary with comedic undertones, and the action and horror ultimately feel like obligatory window dressing to justify its genre trappings. If the filmmakers could have found a clever way to weave the deconstructionism into its elements of spectacle, it might have made them easier to swallow even on a tight budget.

Bit - Thirty 06

When crafting a genre ensemble piece, casting and characterisation are absolutely key, and Bit knocks it out of the park in regards to its two leads. Nicole Maines makes for a fantastic protagonist as the cynical and conflicted Laurel. She’s innocent and diffident enough about her place in the world to be sympathetic, but she has a self-aware dry wit, a wisdom beyond her years and a confidence in herself that equally make her aspirational. On top of Maines’ great performance, the screenplay does a fantastic job of subtly weaving Laurel’s trans identity into the character’s backstory and dialogue. Though it certainly plays a role, her gender is never overtly called attention to or made into a big issue, which naturally compliments the film’s intersectional message. It is honestly up there with Sam Levinson’s recent work as one of the best examples of transgender representation in film & television not directly about the trans experience (speaking personally for a sec, it feels a bit wrong that the two filmmakers who’ve gotten this right are a pair of cishetero dudes, but that’s the weird nonsensical world we live in I guess).

Perfectly contrasting the reluctant Laurel is Diana Hopper as the assertive and empowered Duke. She is a presence from the moment she walks on screen and steals every scene she gets her hands on. Hopper just has this natural charisma and authority that you absolutely buy that these women would follow her, and her dialogue is just layered with harsh truths and witty observations that tear into patriarchal culture. On top of that, the sequence detailing Duke’s backstory is easily the best part of the movie and features one hell of an inspired needle drop. It’s a moment that could have easily pushed the film into What We Do in the Shadows territory, but it pulls itself back just enough to avoid going into parody. With that said, the film does such a great job with defining Laurel and Duke that unfortunately, because of the film’s constrained length, the other characters get nowhere near enough attention. James Paxton ends up being a bit one-note as Laurel’s frustrated older brother Mark, but he makes up for it towards the end in a fantastic dramatic scene with Maines where he unloads his insecurities. The other vampires in Duke’s gang equally feel side-lined and defined purely by their admittedly unique aesthetics; Zolee Griggs’ Izzy admittedly gets a little more to do at first, but once the film jumps into fast-forward for the third act she falls into the background. The shining star in the film’s mostly generic secondary cast is Greg Hill as the master vampire Vlad, whose distinctive face and voice perfectly embodies that classic horror movie image, though again his screen time is tragically brief.

Bit' Review – Variety

Bit is hampered in several ways by its truncated length and tepid spectacle, but what it achieves despite its limitations is remarkable. As a feminist vampire film, it leans far more on the former rather than the latter, which may turn off audiences looking for a more conventional horror flick. However, for film lovers starved for genre entertainment that breaks boundaries and says something relevant to the times, this is absolutely one worth seeking out and supporting. Speaking candidly for a moment again, this movie honestly feels like it was made just for me, but I can think of so many other audiences who would get a kick out of it. This deserves to become an underground classic in the vein of Repo Man, Night of the Comet or Big Trouble in Little China, but especially within queer and feminist circles. The story’s ending certainly makes itself clear that it would like to continue, so a direct sequel or even a TV series continuation would certainly be a great option. Hey, remember: Buffy the Vampire Slayer began its life as a low-budget cult horror flick before being reinvented as the worldwide TV phenomenon. Who’s to say Bit couldn’t and shouldn’t get the same treatment?