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.

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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

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Will Smith (Suicide Squad), Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games), Charles Melton (Riverdale), Paola Núñez (Dariela los martes), Kate del Castillo (The 33), Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix)

Directors: Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah (Black)

Writers: Chris Bremner and Peter Craig (The Town) and Joe Carnahan (The Grey)

Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes

Release Date: 17th January (US, UK)

Amongst the sea of buddy cop action-comedies, the Bad Boys films certainly have their place in history. It was (and unfortunately still is) uncommon to see a big Hollywood action film with two black leads, and the first film was one of several that helped shoot Will Smith from sitcom star to movie legend. However, much of those films’ legacy lies at the feet of one man: Michael Bay. Bad Boys was his feature directorial debut, and its 2002 sequel in particular ended up defining Bay’s aesthetic for years: loud, gaudy, over-the-top and borderline offensive. The Bad Boys films were never particularly good movies, but they had an entertaining appeal that was distinctively Michael Bay’s. So what do you get when you make a Bad Boys movie without the Bayhem? Well, it’s funny that you should ask…

Picking up in real time from the events of the second film, Bad Boys for Life is very much aware of the age of its two stars and uses that to its advantage. Whilst there are the expected elements like Smith and Lawrence exchanging quips about how old they are or the generational clash with their millennial co-workers, the third film has also tonally matured with its stars and makes a solid play at getting serious. Whilst the plot itself is pretty standard cop movie stuff, the character dynamics and thematic elements feel very fresh, especially for such a notoriously anti-intellectual series. The action, the fun and the laughs are all still there, but there’s an added dimension of heart and sincerity that gives the proceedings an emotional heft much in the same vein as recent Fast & Furious films; it’s not exactly complex, but it’s enough to break up the monotony. Beyond all the chaos and carnage, it explores universal themes of mortality, family and how our traumas define who were are. It all finally adds a dose of humanity to the franchise, giving the characters some character introspection to play with rather than just mugging or being charismatic.

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Whilst Will Smith may not be quite the movie star he was even five years ago, and Martin Lawrence even more so (he hasn’t had a starring role in close to a decade!), the Bad Boys of Miami PD themselves pick up the roles of Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett like they never left. Their character traits and interplay are very much the same, but have been significantly dialled back from their almost caricatured portrayal in Bad Boys II, and that’s ultimately for the better. The film’s greatest asset is that it finds a way to dive into these character’s psyches and gives them a history that adds genuine emotional weight to what were seemingly just clashing buddy cop traits. This level of character development was something Bad Boys was sorely lacking in comparison to its contemporaries, and they now finally feel like real characters rather than vessels for their respective actor’s real-life personas.

There are a few returning players from the prior films including Theresa Randle as Marcus’s ever-annoyed wife and Joe Pantoliano as the always-required angry police captain, but it’s Bad Boys for Life’s new players that add some real extra flavour. The film’s big new conceit is a young team of officers who use technology rather than brute force to fight crime, and whilst this concept has quickly become cliché the actors themselves acquit themselves well. Alexander Ludwig is quietly amusing as the gentle giant Dorn, Charles Melton is a suitably cocky rival to Mike as Rafe, and Paola Núñez is an instantly-captivating presence as squad leader and Mike’s old flame Rita; Vanessa Hudgens is also present as Kelly, but she unfortunately doesn’t get much focus compared to her co-stars. This is also the first Bad Boys film where the villains feel just as developed and interesting as the heroes, with the mother-son adversaries being not only a physical but emotional challenge. Kate del Castillo is suitably sultry and wicked as femme fatale Isabel, whilst Jacob Scipio gives something of a star-making turn as Armando; if nothing else, he should have a solid career ahead of him playing heavies in action flicks.

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So what does a Bad Boys film without Michael Bay look like? In many ways, much the same. Directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah keep true enough to the aesthetic established by Bay to be recognisably part of the same series, but at the same time they have refined and controlled his style into something more visually digestible. Yes, the film is still awash in a high-contrast filter with lots of dynamic tracking shots and slow-motion, but it feels far less frantic and sophomoric. There’s a bit more elegance to the construction of the action sequences, relying less on spectacle and explosions and allowing the stunt work and gunplay to speak for themselves. Whilst in some ways it does lose some of Bay’s more inspired moments of lunacy, it is ultimately far easier to process and remember the action in Bad Boys for Life, and is easily the most successful attempt at copying the director’s style to date.

Watching Bad Boys for Life is like reuniting with your dumb friend from high school and realising they’ve become mature and self-aware with age. It’s still thoroughly ridiculous and pretty disposable, but it has surprising depth and introspection that more franchise revivals need to take notes from. There’s something here even for those who didn’t particularly like the first two films, whilst still delivering on the action and spectacle franchise fans are looking for. It is ideal Friday night entertainment fodder, best enjoyed with a bunch of friends, fast food and maybe a few drinks. People often defend Michael Bay movies by saying you need to turn off your brain to enjoy them. You can do that with Bad Boys for Life, but thankfully you don’t have to.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

JOJO RABBIT – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Roman Griffith Davis, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), Sam Rockwell (Vice), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), Alfie Allen (John Wick), Stephen Merchant (Portal 2), Archie Yates

Writer/Director: Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)

Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes

Release Date: 18th October (US), 1st January (UK)

We live in troubled times indeed, and what helps us more than anything to get through it all with our sanity intact is laughter. Whilst satire has thrived in recent years through sketch comedy and late night talk shows taking jabs at our socio-economic climate, films taking on the task have been a little fewer and far between. In walks Taika Waititi, fresh off a one-two-three punch of What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, with what is essentially the greatest Mel Brooks film never made. It’s too easy to describe the premise of Jojo Rabbit and end up making it sounds distasteful, but the final product is far from that. On the contrary, it is a master class in taking a horrible tragedy and turning it into something beautiful.

Whilst Jojo Rabbit firmly plants itself within its period setting of Germany at the tail end of World War II, it does a fantastic job of contemporizing its story and themes. Right from its opening titles, which juxtaposes propaganda footage of Germans going crazy for Adolf Hitler to the tune of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles, it firmly makes a point that this more than just a piece of history. However, it is less a comment on fascism as a whole and more the effect it can have on family and a young person’s mind. It is at its core a coming-of-age film about being yourself and overcoming societal conformity, but with Nazis and Jewish refugees in place of the bullies and nerds, and with that collation comes the humour. Jojo Rabbit is a consistently witty and clever story, but it also knows when to take a step back from the comedy and showcase the true horror of its setting. It never attempts to sugarcoat the reality of history for too long, and those moments of genuine tragedy can be gut wrenching to the point of tears. It is the wake-up call this culture needs right now to remember where we have been and what we can try to do to prevent it, and is ultimately an optimistic story of a boy learning to question his beliefs and see the world for what it truly is and could be.

Waititi has already proven himself a remarkable director of child actors with Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and with Jojo Rabbit he has fostered yet another great young star in Roman Griffith Davis as the titular cowardly Hitler Youth. He brings humour and relatability to Jojo, a character who could have too easily been portrayed as righteous or stupid, instead firmly framing his warped worldview as a manifestation of his fears and naivety. Through his performance, Davis makes clear that Jojo is not a bad person, but simply one who needs to learn more about himself and others. Opposite him as the fugitive hiding within his walls Elsa, Thomasin McKenzie continues to prove herself another actor to watch with her dry and world-weary young woman who has been forced to grow up too fast. Scarlett Johansson brings a different sense of humour to the story as Jojo’s mother, using her assertiveness and kind heart for both comedic and dramatic purposes to play the kind of mum any of us would be lucky to have.

Sam Rockwell gives a surprisingly understated performance as the disgraced Captain Klenzendorf, still infusing plenty of comedy whilst ultimately playing a graceless yet tragically human character. Archie Yates is easily the film’s breakout star as Jojo’s buddy Yorki, providing a mirror to Jojo’s own misguided beliefs, and the likes of Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant all bring strong performances in their more limited roles. Ultimately though, the director himself is the real scene-stealer, as Waititi himself takes on the role of Jojo’s imaginary friend…Adolf Hitler. Waititi brings much of the same sense of humour he’s brought to many of his other roles, but using that same flippant and laidback comedy whilst playing one of history’s greatest monsters is a tremendously comical middle finger to the real-life villain, and is far more of a nuanced and psychologically rich performance than a simple caricature.

The best way to describe the aesthetic of Jojo Rabbit is “toy box fascist”, as it takes horrendous Nazi imagery and paints it with an idealistic and bright colour palette. It never glosses over the real-life atrocities, but instead uses its twisted aesthetic to lampoon the subtle ridiculousness of fascist iconography. This carries over into the film’s costumes, which lie somewhere on the fine line between historically accurate and outfits from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Giacchino provides a fantastic score as always, and the film’s frequent use of classic rock and pop tunes with German lyrics is a wonderfully quirky touch.

Jojo Rabbit is the movie this ailing world needs right now: a reminder that innocence and humanity can be found in the darkest of places. It is an excellent ridiculing of both the depravity and the machismo of the Nazi Party, and ultimately is a feel-good triumph about love overcoming hatred. It’s confirmation that Taika Waititi is far more than just a quirky clown who never takes anything seriously; he’s a nuanced and talented filmmaker with a unique voice and something to say. This isn’t a film that is immediately going to fix the world or deprogram every alt-right sadboy who happens to watch it, but I hope it leaves an impact and helps someone realise we are not in too dissimilar a situation right now…

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!