WONDER WOMAN 1984 – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Patty Jenkins (Monster)

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

Runtime: 2 hours 31 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

MULAN – an Alternative Lens review

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

Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)

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

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 4th September (Disney+)

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

Mulan (2020) - IMDb

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

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

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

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

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

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 2/10

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?

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

ONWARD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home), Chris Pratt (Jurassic World), Julia-Louise Dreyfus (Veep), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe), Lena Waithe (Ready Player One)

Director: Dan Scanlon (Monsters University)

Writers: Dan Scanlon & Jason Headley (A Bad Idea Gone Wrong) & Keith Bunin (Horns)

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 6th March (US, UK)

Pixar is entering something of a new era. The remnants of the Lasseter years are finally behind them, their extended run of sequels has been aptly capped by Toy Story 4, and now they enter a new decade refocusing on original concepts with all kinds of fantastic possibilities awaiting. Onward is an apt first step forward into this uncharted territory given its titular themes of moving forward and, whilst certainly far from the studio’s finest hour, is undeniably a Pixar movie with all of the energy, imagination and heart you’d expect.

Like all great Pixar films, Onward uses its fantastical backdrop to tell a relatably human story; in this instance, a tale of brotherhood and reconciling your past with your present and future. Though certainly not a totally original backbone, it has a distinctive perspective on the subject and uses its fantasy setting ably to juxtapose the structure of a mythic quest to the family drama of two brothers who miss their father. Whilst it perhaps doesn’t take advantage of its world as much as one might hope, relying heavily on shorthand familiarity with genre tropes, there’s just enough fun details to make it feel distinctive. It’s tonally a lot more light-hearted than most Pixar films, moving at a brisk pace and throwing out gags thick and fast, to the point it more resembles a DreamWorks production at times. However, it brings back the magic by its third act and packs emotional heft where it counts, using its fantastical world to emphasize its emotional centre rather than distract from it. It’s the rare family film where the message is mature, nuanced and aimed mostly at teenagers in the audience. It’s a welcome change of pace that avoids the usual platitudes, but younger and older viewers should be able to appreciate its sentiments too.

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Much of Onward’s emotional heft lies at the feet of Tom Holland as socially awkward teen elf Ian and he knocks it out of the park. He is an instantly relatable and sympathetic character, taking the basic “shy nerdy kid” template and giving it a modern twist, and Holland’s immediately endearing voice is a perfect match. Fairing a little less well is Chris Pratt doing his best Jack Black impression as Ian’s manchild older brother Barley. Pratt performs ably in the role, but even for a character who is initially supposed to be obnoxious, he flies a little too close to the sun. Additionally, whilst Barley’s character arc is sweet and compliments Ian’s development well, the details of it are near-identical to Pratt’s Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy; honestly, it’s so close I wonder if it wasn’t a coincidence at all. Julia-Louise Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer are also fantastic as Ian & Barley’s mother and a manticore respectively, though neither gets as much screen time as they deserve. Spencer especially feels a little hard done by, as though her abrupt identity crisis is hilariously delivered it hits its peak too early and she’s somewhat left to coast for the rest of the film. Honestly, a film just about her and Dreyfus might have been just as entertaining if not more so. Mel Rodriguez is a welcome surprise as Dreyfus’ boyfriend Bronco, whilst Ali Wong and Lena Waithe are a bit of a waste as a pair of cops who only appear in one amusing but brief comedic interlude (and yet again Disney’s token offhand approach to LGBTQ+ representation).

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Though on a story level the world of Onward is a little patchy, the visual storytelling going on in its production design fills in the gaps ably. It is distinctively a fantasy world brought to the modern day rather than just our world but with fantasy characters carelessly inserted (*cough*Bright*cough*), which not only avoids world-building problems but frees it up to be far more imaginative. It’s an endearing and colourful art style with just enough shades of darkness to avoid being too cutesy, and little details like the patches on Barley’s denim jacket or the nail polish on The Manticore’s claws are nice humanising touches.

Onward is a solid return to original storytelling for Pixar, though it ultimately plays it a little too safe to be anything other than pretty damn good. Much like director Dan Scanlon’s previous effort Monsters University, it’s a well-constructed and endearing bit of family entertainment that abruptly gets real as it veers into the third act to yank on your heartstrings. It makes for an experience than ends on a high note but feels lacking similar heights throughout. The Pixar name is usually enough of a seal of approval in-and-of-itself, and Onward is certainly honourable enough to earn its place amongst their catalogue. Hopefully, this is just the start of a bright new future for the studio, and we don’t even have to wait that long for their next effort.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

THE INVISIBLE MAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Faster), Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), Harriet Dyer (No Activity)

Writer/Director: Leigh Whannell (Upgrade)

Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes

Release Date: 28th February (US, UK)

You’d think Universal taking their long history of horror classics and turning them into a major franchise in the middle of the cinematic universe boom would be a no brainer, but they’ve failed to several times over the past decade. After their biggest attempt (the so-called “Dark Universe”) flopped at the first hurdle with the dreadful reboot of The Mummy franchise, it seemed like it might be the end of the road for seeing the classic monsters on screen again.

Instead, they’ve taken a new tack: focus on individual projects with no connectivity, hire atypical and/or developing talent, and make them on a smaller scale. It’s an obvious but smart move, and one that ultimately serves its genre better than gargantuan blockbusters. Low budget horror maestros Blumhouse have stepped up to the plate first with Leigh Whannell’s contemporary take on H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, and on the first bat they’ve hit a home run. A genuinely distressing and topical psychological horror, this is a stellar example of how to update a classic concept to reflect modern fears.

Neither a straight-up adaptation of Wells’ novel or the 1933 film starring Claude Rains, this new version only takes the base premise of a manic genius turned invisible and instead crafts a new tale that examines those powers at their logical but morbid extreme. What could have easily been just another slasher flick with a sci-fi gimmick (i.e. Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man) instead takes a more cerebral approach, avoiding cheap thrills and keeping the audience in a constant nervous state. Despite its heightened premise, The Invisible Man depicts hard-hitting subjects like spousal abuse, post-traumatic stress and gaslighting with the seriousness they deserve. It expertly puts you in the mindset of its mentally frail protagonist as her grip on reality is gradually shattered, to the point I’d actively warn any viewers with a history of anxiety, depression and/or abuse to be aware of your mental health before watching. Much like The Babadook and Don’t Breathe, it understands that horror is most effective when grounded in humanity, if not necessarily reality, making for an experience that is harrowing yet beautiful.

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Much of The Invisible Man’s success lies at the feet of star Elizabeth Moss, who delivers a phenomenal performance as our paranoid protagonist Cecilia. Tragic and relatable in equal measure, her depiction of PTSD puts most serious dramas to shame and gives a valuable voice to survivors in the wake of the #MeToo era. However, despite her mental instability, the film avoids making her a helpless victim and Moss keeps the character grounded in reality even as the story grows increasingly high-concept. Much like Toni Collette in Hereditary and Lupita Nyong’o in Us, it is an awards-worthy performance in a genre picture that is likely to be overlooked by the prestige crowd. The supporting cast delivers capably, especially Aldis Hodge as Cecilia’s friend and confidante and Storm Reid as Hodge’s daughter, whilst Harriet Dyer is decent enough as Cecilia’s beleaguered sister Emily (though her personality does rapidly shift between scenes). Of course there is the titular character himself and, though he is rarely seen or heard, Oliver Jackson-Cohen gives an eerily understated performance as Adrian Griffin. Playing the role like a sociopathic Tony Stark, his on-screen time is brief but effective, crafting a terrifying horror villain who’s evil feels all too real.

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Making a film that involves invisibility can be super-tricky, as it is far too easy to make it look ridiculous as actors seemingly flail about at nothing. Luckily, Leigh Whannell’s direction focuses more on what we can’t see than what we can, building suspense through long takes and unnerving camera pans. That’s not to say the film is without action or violence, but they are intelligently staged and feel earned after waiting and watching the frame for Griffin to strike. Whannell’s experience with unconventional action on Upgrade becomes evident during these most intense moments, and his ability to pull off these sequences on such a low budget is especially impressive. The cinematography is strong but the camera operating is especially stellar, whilst the film’s tremendous sound design and Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting score give the film some great auditory heft.

The Invisible Man is a perfect blend of high-concept and grounded horror, tapping into the zeitgeist and delivering a haunting parable about psychological abuse. Whilst undeniably a horror film at its core, it also transcends the genre to the point where non-horror fans will find something to enjoy. Whilst it certainly doesn’t linger on Universal’s past mistakes, its success proves that you don’t need gigantic budgets, a shared universe or celebrity stunt casting to reinvent the Universal Monsters brand. Though perhaps not as ingenious or revolutionary a take as, say, Jordan Peele’s recent output, it is still a brilliant testament to how the best horror takes our real-life anxieties and warps them into debilitating nightmares. Heed the trigger warnings beforehand, but absolutely go see it if you can! 

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

 

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation), James Marsden (Enchanted), Jim Carrey (The Mask), Tika Sumpter (Ride Along), Adam Pally (Iron Man 3), Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger)

Director: Jeff Fowler (Gopher Broke)

Writers: Patrick Casey & Josh Miller (Transylmania)

Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes

Release Date: 14th February (US, UK)

Sonic the Hedgehog may be an icon of the video game world so ubiquitous that he’s familiar to even those who don’t play video games, but regardless he is an odd choice to get the movie treatment. He may have a fervent fanbase and a huge library of games, but story and character have never been the strong suit of the franchise no matter how many DeviantArt forums will tell you otherwise. Given those circumstances, seeing the character shoved into a well-worn family movie formula is ultimately not too surprising. What is surprising is how much Sonic the Hedgehog actually works as a movie despite its more unimaginative elements.

The plot of Sonic is certainly amongst its weaker qualities. It lacks originality and relies heavily on tropes to the point that every development is predictable from a mile away. The film does seem aware of this and attempts to lampshade this by cutting to the chase, but regardless it’s all very workmanlike; nothing is particularly done badly, but none of it stands out either. Whilst no film with this tone and audience needs to be longer than 100 minutes, the story does feel quite rushed and unfinished at points, as if various different drafts were mashed together or chunks were lost in editing. For example, the entire subplot surrounding Tom’s fugitive status is feels tacked-on and barely impacts the narrative, whilst the prologue backstory for Sonic feels like it came from a completely different movie. With all that said, the movie manages to function purely thanks to its enthusiasm, humour and heart. Though it’s all tame and family-friendly, there are a fair few decent gags from the likes of both Sonic and Robotnik, and it generally avoids relying on potty humour or tired pop culture references. More surprisingly, though occasionally trite, the film does mine some pathos out of its themes of overcoming isolation and discovering where you belong. None of it is particularly revolutionary, but there is at least some effort on an emotional level to make this more than just an exercise in brand management.

Though many of the specifics have drastically changed and evolved over the years, Sonic as a character has always been defined by his cheeky demeanour and 90s-brand attitude. In terms of translating that into a three-dimensional character, Ben Schwartz has done a commendable job of making Sonic likable and even relatable. He imbues him with an infectious child-like wonder and a self-deprecating sense of humour that’s quickly endearing, but he also finds some depth in his feelings of desperation and loneliness and how that drives his erratic personality. The material is somewhat limited, but Schwartz consistently finds ways to embellish the base material and keeps the movie lively when the plot feels like coasting.

James Marsden feels a tad typecast playing small-town sheriff Tom and never quite embraces the ridiculousness of the premise, but he is nothing but consistent in his performance and has a decent repartee with Schwartz. Tika Sumpter feels a tad tacked on as Tom’s wife Maddie, but her chemistry with Marsden is strong and their relationship has some interesting kinks to it that avoid making it a cookie-cutter dynamic, whilst both Adam Pally and Neal McDonough are saddled with one-note side characters that don’t really demand actors of even their stature. However, Jim Carrey ultimately steals the show as Dr. Robotnik. Though a bit of a far cry from his video game counterpart, Carrey does embrace the cartoony nature of the character and delivers an unhinged and thoroughly entertaining performance. Much like Schwartz, he manages to elevate the ho-hum material handed to him and adds some intricacy to Robotnik’s motivations, characterising him a crazed narcissist with a single-minded obsession to prove himself better. It’s easily Carrey’s best strictly comedic performance in over a decade, and easily the most appealing element of the film to those not already heavily invested in the Sonic franchise.

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Much of the pre-release chatter about the film was Sonic’s drastic redesign during post-production, which saw the Blue Blur turned from a cartoon hedgehog to an unappealingly lanky Dr. Moreau creature to a happier medium between classic and realistic. Though perhaps not quite as impressive as the character designs in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Sonic himself ultimately looks like his iconic self and translates surprisingly well into 3-D space. The visual effects are suitably cartoony without feeling totally unreal, adapting concepts from the games into live-action with surprising adeptness and verisimilitude. The film’s action sequences are disappointingly brief and intermittent, but they’re all executed with good humour and craft. There are some clear cues taken from the Quicksilver sequences in the recent X-Men films, but they’re still a blast to watch and incorporate many of Sonic’s classic moves into the action. Tom Holkenborg’s score is effective if a tad forgettable save for some clever references to music cues from the games, whilst Wiz Khalifa’s tie-in song “Speed Me Up” is honestly a pretty decent track with a catchy and energetic beat; it’s no “Escape from the City”, but it is good workout playlist material.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a pretty by-the-numbers kids’ movie that does the bare minimum in some essential areas, but there are clearly enough people working behind the scenes trying their best to elevate it. It’s a flawed but endearing film with a naïve energy and wry self-awareness, occasionally hitting sparks of genius in the midst of its humdrum narrative. It’ll certainly appeal to Sonic fans with its appealing character design and numerous Easter eggs (if you are a fan, do stay through the credits!), but it’s harmless and appealing enough that a more general audience will find something to like too. There’s a decent backbone here to build a franchise out of, but if they proceed the filmmakers need to embrace the idiosyncrasies of the property. Now the foundations are in place, there’s no need to play it safe with a formulaic plot. Bring in more of the classic Sonic elements and embrace the ridiculousness more. If the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog can at least be as unapologetically dumb fun as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows or the 2017 Power Rangers movie, then I’m all for further adventures with this chilli dog-loving fiend. 

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Underground), Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing), Chris Messina (Ruby Sparks), Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe), Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep)

Director: Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs)

Writer: Christina Hodson (Bumblebee)

Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes

Release Date: 7th February (US, UK)

Speaking personally for just a moment, there are several reviews I’ve written in the past that I wholeheartedly disagree with now, and none more so than my original thoughts on Suicide Squad. If you can believe it, I gave the film a 7.5 at the time of release, and on subsequent attempts to watch it, I’ve found it is…nowhere near worthy of that score. To be fair, I saw the movie at a secret advance screening that began at 1am, so…yeah, perhaps my mind wasn’t in the best place and I mistook that film’s horrendous editing for me just being tired. Heck, I even favourably compared it to Fight Club, which…no. Just no. Yeah, past me was kinda dumb sometimes.

That being said, Suicide Squad did have many redeeming qualities, one of which being Margot Robbie’s fantastic performance as Harley Quinn. Even as many audiences disregarded the film itself, the desire for more from The Joker’s ditzy partner-in-crime was immense, and it seems Robbie herself was quick to pick up on what fans were really looking for. So now we have Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which partners Ms Quinn with several other badass ladies from the DC Universe for a zany crime caper packed with blood and laughs. In short, it delivers on everything Suicide Squad failed to and so much more.

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (#15 of 18)

Birds of Prey is a movie told from Harley Quinn’s perspective not only on a plot level but a tonal and thematic one too. Telling its story with frequent voice-over, fourth-wall-breaking, fractured timelines and fantasy sequences, there is a frantic and larger-than-life energy to the entire production that simply exudes fun. The plot itself is a fairly simple “everyone wants to find character and/or MacGuffin for different reasons, so protagonist goes on the run to protect character and/or MacGuffin” kind of deal, but it is told with enough flair and idiosyncratic characters that it’s hard to care.

Even though the non-linear structure occasionally ruptures the film’s flow a little too much, its vigour and charm never cease to keep up, and come the third act it all explodes into a satisfyingly joyous girl gang frenzy. The aim of the game here is clearly unbridled entertainment, but there is some added depth to the madness with its themes of breaking free from toxicity and patriarchy and learning to embrace individuality and sisterhood. Superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel may have already delivered strong feminist messages in their stories, but Birds of Prey allows those themes to burst out with anarchic pop-punk relish. It’s not afraid to allow its women to be dirty or foul-mouthed or anything else atypically feminine, and that rebellious spirit is alone worth celebrating for a major studio blockbuster.

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Whilst Robbie’s Harley Quinn has been worthily lauded, one of the issues viewers of Suicide Squad and fans of the character over the years have noted is the problematic nature of her relationship with The Joker. Her devotion and dependency on the villain may be an important part of her warped psyche, but unfortunately it also reinforces and makes light of the horrid toxicity of real-life abusive relationships. Birds of Prey handles this issue with tact, building the story and Harley’s arc around her not only getting over The Joker but finding herself again as an independent woman. This allows Robbie to bring some much-needed nuance to the character whilst still being able to embrace her manic and cathartic personality, and she’s clearly having an absolute blast throughout.

Though this is very much Robbie’s movie, and its biggest flaw is that she ultimately eats up much of the screen time of the actual Birds of Prey to their detriment, the rest of the cast all deliver wildly rapturous and compelling performances. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a revelation as Black Canary, imbuing the character with a streetsmart attitude and moral code that sets her apart from previous incarnations of the character whilst still unequivocally being Dinah Lance. Though she mostly takes a back seat until towards the third act, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is fascinating being equally stone-cold and endearingly awkward; her social inexperience and one-track mindset make her a gold mine of possibilities for future films. Rosie Perez is finally given her blockbuster due as the abrasive yet gold-hearted Renee Montoya, whilst Ella Hay Basco is delightfully cheeky as Cassandra Cain. Ewan McGregor eats up the scenery and spits it out as the viciously camp crime boss Black Mask, and is ably supported by Chris Messina’s quietly psychotic turn as Victor Zsasz.

Though Suicide Squad’s aesthetic and technical qualities ended up being a garish mess, there were solid ideas at its core that simply got lost or out of control. Birds of Prey fixes up these ideas to deliver a more streamlined yet equally madcap experience. The film is awash in the loud fog and neon of a graphic novel, bolstered by Matthew Libatique’s fantastically flowing cinematography. The whole movie is bursting with punk, femme and queer inspirations, particularly in the film’s gorgeous costume design packed with awesome outfits sure to inspire many cosplays. The action sequences are a bone-crunching delight, packed with superb choreography and ingenious set-pieces with a clear Jackie Chan influence; it should be no surprise that John Wick maestro Chad Stahelski did some second unit punch-up on this. Further bolstering the film’s girl gang ferocity is its soundtrack, packed full of contemporary rap and pop and tuned-up covers of classics, all from female artists. Complimenting Daniel Pemberton’s score, these tracks are intelligently sprinkled throughout and none of them suffer from being obvious needle drops like Suicide Squad’s fevered playlist.

Birds of Prey is a divine blend of superheroics and chaotic catharsis, perfectly embodying Harley’s titular emancipation from not only The Joker but the past sins of the DCEU. From beginning to end, it bursts at the seams with uninhibited enthusiasm and sass, reinforced by a game cast all clearly having so much fun and filmmaking unafraid to be gaudy and unapologetically feminine. As the blockbuster debut of director Cathy Yan, her voice manages to shine throughout and only further emboldens DC’s new approach to making their films individually distinct rather than Marvel’s uniform policy. Even removed from its comic book roots, this is a bold and unique action-comedy that has plenty of potential outside of the typical superhero audience, and hopefully this isn’t the last time we see the Birds of Prey in action. As for Harley Quinn, we only have eighteen months to wait before she we see her return to her old squad. I hear they’re being given quite the makeover… 

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10