Ava (2020)

ava poster

The deadly female assassin is turning into a bit of a trope these days: do we really need another take on it? Hmm, not so much. I mean, yes give women as many chances as the blokes have had over the years, but I still want something more interesting than just ‘she’s a woman’.

Jessica Chastain plays Ava, an assassin working for some shadowy black ops organisation, travelling the globe like some kind of female Bond. Oh yes, even using sex as a weapon. Like 007, she has a bit of an alcohol problem; unlike 007 we’re treated to a full ‘this is bad’ whole issue-as-personality shortcut thing. Hmm again.

When a job goes wrong, Ava is told to take a vacation. The timing is actually pretty good, as she needs to head home to her estranged family and deal with issues – oh, so many issues – there. But something is not right, plots seem to be boiling behind Ava’s back. Can she trust her handler (John Malkovich), or his once-protege now boss (Colin Farrell)?

This isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s neither as original as it thinks nor slick enough, gripping enough, or fun enough to stand out from the action movie pack. To be honest, the trend of making the lead character more flawed, the story all the darker, just doesn’t really work for me. I want escapism in my action movies, not misery.

Still, Chastain kicks a$$ well enough, and her backing cast are fine. I’m not really sure about the character ‘development’ in the ending, though – it’s almost laughable. Except, this is not a movie you’ll be laughing at, or with.

By all means stick it on one rainy day, but keep those expectations pretty low, if you want my opinion. Watchable, but nothing special.

Released: 27th August 2020
Viewed: 28th August 2020
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

Project Power (2020)

project power poster

There’s a new drug on the streets of New Orleans. This one doesn’t just make you feel powerful: it literally gives you superpowers. However there are catches: it will only last for 5 minutes, and you have no way of knowing what power you’ll get. Invulnerability is great, turning into a human torch might have it’s uses, but then again you might just be one of the unlucky ones that just explodes. Messy.

Into this set up throw a teenage drug dealer, a cop who isn’t above fighting fire with fire, and a dangerous man on a mysterious mission.

I do like my superhero movies, especially those that are trying something a little bit different. This almost manages that. The device of the pills, the random effects, and the time limit are highly intriguing. Are they used as well as they could have been? Hmm.

Full marks for the cast. Jamie Foxx is always excellent, and Dominique Fishback steps up strongly into a surprisingly big role. I say surprising, because marketing had led me to believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have a bigger part, but he’s a little in the background.

What works: the SFX are well done, the acting is good, and the action is high. What isn’t quite as strong: the plot didn’t feel that original, and the mechanics of the superpowers are allowed to be a little fuzzy when it suits. The attempt to add logic of a sort never, ever works well in these kinds of stories, either.

Overall, this was a pleasantly diverting, fun and daft kind of a Friday night action flick. If you have Netflix and a liking for that sort of thing, you could certainly do worse.

Released: 14th August 2020
Viewed: 21st August 2020
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Mulan (2020)

mulan poster

The latest in the Disney live action (or not so much, with some of them) remakes continues with no little controversy. I can’t really comment much on the cultural issues, or the lead actress’s political comments. But yeah, asking £20 over and above the subscription fee for the platform it’s showing on – meh.

But, all that aside, and let’s look at the actual movie. When the Emperor of China calls for each family to provide one man to join the army, headstrong Mulan – always in trouble for being less than the delicate, marriageable flower society wants – steals her aged father’s armour and sword and disguises herself as a boy. 

As she struggles to maintain her secret, Mulan also reveals herself to be a gifted fighter. Is that enough to overcome both prejudice, and the threat of the Rouran invaders?

Okay, where to start? I actually rewatched the animated version of this not so long ago, so it’s pretty fresh in my mind. This takes the basic story, but tells it in quite a different style. It seemed to me more Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than a Disney feature. Which generally would be no bad thing, and yet somehow it felt like a slightly uneasy mashup of Mulan (1998) and several other movies I know I’ve seen already – the new character of the sorceress, for example, feels lifted wholesale from… something I can’t put my finger on, argh!

We’re missing the comic relief from the miniature dragon, Mushu (as voiced by Eddie Murphy), which is a loss as well as yes, the very understandable choice. They have instead, for some unfathomable reason, inserted a (speechless) CGI phoenix that swoops about distractingly and irritated me greatly.

Acting-wise, and Yifei Liu is well cast, handling the physicality of the role impressively. I was pretty gobsmacked to see the likes of Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jason Scott Lee in the cast – all for reasons, it is rumoured, other than being overly impressed with the script.

There’s a lot of praise to be handed out to the visuals – the colours, the scenery – but major marks off from me for the overuse of ‘fancy’ camera work and effects. I hated the blurred-edge screen during several fight scenes. The opening in particular is showing off to the point of too busy.

So overall… well, it’s not awful. As a retelling of a ‘classic’ story, turned into a martial arts romance kind of thing, it’s fairly serviceable. However, it’s not great. The plot worked for an animation, not so much here, where the gaping holes are less forgivable. The lack of originality shouldn’t be an issue in a remake, but the ‘new’ expanded bits feel stolen from other movies. And there’s a distinct lack of fun to be had, quite frankly. And that’s from a pasty white Scot, as apparently there is a LOT to loath from a cultural standpoint, too.

My recommendation would wholeheartedly be to not part with the extra cash – it is certainly not worth that, for anyone, and I suspect the younger audience will actually find it all quite dull. When it hits regular streaming, by all means give it a look if it takes your fancy.

Released: 4th September 2020
Viewed: 4th September 2020
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

umbrella academy season 2 poster

My love for The Umbrella Academy was clear from season 1, with its quirky, irreverent take on the superhero genre. Season 2 would finally solve the cliff-hanger ending, but would its appeal wane with the shifting story?

Well I’m delighted to report: absolutely not! In fact, there’s as much if not more to love here 🙂

Backing up a bit, and we’re still following the lives of the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings, each with a different super power: the ability to talk to the dead or to make people do what you say, teleportation, super strength, etc. At the end of season 1 (spoiler warning!) their attempts to save the world went a little awry, and the attempt then to save themselves ended up with Five’s time travel ability taking them all back to the 1960s – only, not the same part of the 60s.

And so we have the group split up and out of time, each facing challenges. Alison perhaps has it worse, horrified to find herself facing racial segregation. She and Vanya must both face less than ideal attitudes toward women. The boys perhaps fare a little better, with Klaus in particular… well, I’ll leave that to the viewer. Klaus is always my favourite, and his storyline here is a wonderful tonic to some of the darker things! Close second is Five, who is possibly the star of this season. As the youngest cast member, his ability to handle a complicated role is very impressive – and pretty amusing!

As the group start to drift back together, things are of course not perfect. The Commission is still after them. They may have brought a new apocalypse back with them. And then there’s the daddy issue…!

So yes: season two is still *fabulous* and bonus: it comes with a fantastic 60s soundtrack. The balance between the individual stories and the wider, Earth-destroying kind of issues, is played perfectly. By turns dark and fun, deep and wacky, there’s never a dull moment. If I had any complaints, I found one new main character rather grating, somehow, but oh – the way that could widen the story… bring on season 3!

First broadcast: August 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

The Boys (season 1)

The Boys poster

If there’s one thing I love more than a good superhero tale, it’s all the attempts these days to do something a bit different for the modern age, to find a new angle, or a more believable take. Step forward The Boys, which asks: what if the world had real superheros, celebrities with sponsorship deals – but behind the corporate facade, they’re actually a£$eholes? I mean, great powers doesn’t necessarily come with niceness or the goody-two-shoes-ness that makes some of the stalwarts a bit dull. So what if they were self-serving, totally devoid of moral codes?

The most famous of the ‘supes’ are The Seven, a handpicked group managed by the Vought Corporation. Superheroes are of course big business!

And so we have a superman (Homelander) with a “I get to do whatever the f- I want” attitude. An invisible man (Translucent) who’s unsurprisingly a peeping tom, and a speedster (A-Train) who is far, far more interested in his celebrity endorsements and staying at the top of the pack than anything as mundane as regular people and their woes.

Ooh, it’s dark. And twisted and sweary and *drenched* in blood. And I loved it!

We start proceedings as we mean to go on, with a shocking and quite frankly rather disgusting death. This sets our ‘hero’, Hughie, into the path of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, mangling a British/Kiwi mashup of an accent, but otherwise on form). Butcher has a grudge with the supes, which we will get the full details of as the series progresses.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show, which sets its world and characters up perfectly and then teases out the various mysteries over the course of 8 episodes. What’s Vought’s real agenda? Will these self-centred supes turn, or implode? Will Butcher get his revenge on an impervious man? Will Hughie ever recover from watching… yeah, no, I’ll leave that one as an early viewer surprise 😉

It didn’t quite hit the same levels of joy that I found in The Umbrella Academy, but it was still a lot of gory fun. Looking forward to the next season in a few months, and more to follow!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 1 broadcast so far, second due soon, and a third already announced
Episodes: 8 @ ~55 mins each

My rating: 8.5/10

Guns Akimbo (2019)

guns akimbo poster

Internet troll Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) messes with the wrong organisation when he prods the beast that is Skizm, a ‘game’ that pits strangers against each other in on-street, very real combat, while online spectators cheer for their favourites. Deciding to take revenge in their own unique way, Miles is kidnapped and wakes with guns bolted through his hands and the instruction: kill the top player, Nix, or else.

I can only describe this movie as a cross between Saw and Nerve by way of Doom and the likes. It is relentless: in action, in violence, in ick factor. It’s not awful by any means, and I feel a bit bad downrating it when it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. However, the whole forced surgery thing was a huge no for me, and the tone is just nasty.

Half-watching, I stuck with it and actually enjoyed the middle section a lot more. It’s not that anything lightens, more that the pace gets so manic that everything becomes very cartoony. I generally don’t have too much issue with movie violence, but turns out this ‘unreal’, computer-game quality is what I expect. Alas, things get worse again by the end, notably a man taking a hammer to a woman’s face. Urm, nope!

Daniel Radcliffe does seem to be determined to distance himself as far as possible from the spectre of Harry Potter with roles like this. He’s actually pretty decent in it – a ‘normal’ guy thrown into a nightmare. I think the plot could have been stronger, but clearly that wasn’t the point. It’s all about the visuals (was this based on a comic? Feels like it) and the madcap pace.

So no, not really recommended, but saying that there are times when ultra-daft, super-violent nonsense – with a pretty great soundtrack – can kind of hit the spot. If that moment occurs for you, have at it.

Released: 28th February 2020
Viewed: 19th June 2020
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

Birds of Prey (2020)

birds of prey poster

Being the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 🙂

Following the events of Suicide Squad (2016), ‘Mr J’ (Joker, but not the Joaquin Phoenix one!) and Harley Quinn have split up. She’s taking it well (!): time to adopt a new pet (hyena) and blow some stuff up. But, her party days of doing whatever she wants to whomever she wants are over – without the Joker’s protection, she’s fair game to everyone with a grudge. And there are more than a few of those…

I swithered so hard on this: DC haven’t captured my heart with their movies, and the reviews were mixed. It seems to me that audiences are split on this one more or less down gender lines. Every review I’ve seen that says, “meh, it’s not great” was written by a bloke. And every one that goes “wheee that was fun!” was by a woman. Oversimplification, perhaps, but it kind of makes sense. The women in the movie are having fun; the men are cannon fodder, idiots, or just deranged. Are male audiences just failing to find anything to identify with here? Possibly. Probably, even. Well, welcome to the flip side of the coin!

I’ve described this to a friend as a sort of all-girl version of some daft action movie, like The Expendables or Hobbs and Shaw it’s not deep, it’s not meaningful, it’s just a glorious riot of kicking ass. And there is nothing wrong with that. I say, if there’s room for a dozen mindless action movies for/with the boys in any given year, there is more than enough room for this!

That said, it’s maybe a little mean calling on such daft comparisons. Because while it is largely loud and colourful daft fun, it’s well made, decently acted, and there are a few clever little bits. For instance (tiny, non-important) spoiler: someone pointed out that the ‘fridging’ of the egg sandwich Harley is making goo-goo eyes over is exactly the kind of inciting incident the random female love interest is so often used for in these kinds of movies. Hah!!

The storytelling is also done quite cleverly, dashing back and forward on the narrative as we get the plot through Harley’s not entirely sane mind. She’s ditsy, but not dumb: the odd moment of her using her psychology degree are a nice reminder that she’s damaged, not stupid.

There are going to be those who say that if a case can’t really be made for men enjoying this more, then it’s not a great movie. Well, no it’s not ‘great’. It is a LOT of fun, though, and for once it’s more relatable to a different audience. Getting dumped and getting revenge, hitting back – literally – at catcallers and the like. Being a girl and doing whatever the F you feel like – hells, yeah!!

So. Not a masterpiece, but for the female audience, at least, a huge dollop of fun and exactly the kind of OTT wish fulfilment that the boys have had for more than long enough!

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 4th March 2020
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

jumanji 2 poster

Never a huge fan of the original Jumanji (1995), I enjoyed the reboot of the series (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)) more than I expected. This sequel is more of the same, really, although not quite hitting the same highs for fun or laughs or novelty. Most of the jokes are based on the previous film, with not too much variation on the themes. Still, you know what you’re getting.

For some unfathomably daft reason, young Spencer decides to fix the video game smashed the end of the first (reboot) movie, and re-enters the world of Jumanji. When his friends discover this they feel obliged to go back in and save him. However, not all is working perfectly, so rather than getting to pick their own avatars this time, things get a little… mixed up. Oh, and grandpa (Danny Devito) and his one-time friend (Danny Glover) are along for the ride.

The humour of the ‘old fogies’ is perhaps pushed a bit too far – it’s a bit insulting, actually. Watching the actors play with the new characters, however, is a lot of fun, even if some of the impressions are laid on a bit thick.

This time, the adventure travels out of the jungle setting of the first, but tbh I wasn’t that impressed with the ‘oh look, more Jumanji world’ – it’s all a bit… yeah, yeah, whatever.

Still. Watched this on a day of some pretty dire news, and it did exactly what I was hoping: distracted me for a few hours with a lot of daft fun. Overall I think it’s all pretty forgettable, but enjoyable enough for a mental mini-break.

Released: 11th December 2019
Viewed: 13th December 2019
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

21 Bridges (2019)

21 bridges poster

When a robbery goes wrong and several cops are left dead, who else would be called in but the cop that kills cop killers? Fresh from an Internal Affairs review board, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is left in no doubt what is expected of him in this case. Given just a matter of hours to catch the killers, before those ’21 Bridges’ in and out of the island of Manhattan must be reopened, the race is on and tension levels are skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, the robbers are doubting the job they’ve just pulled, or the stumbling blocks to their escape. Davis, too, is questioning if things are quite what they seem.

Mark Kermode described this as a “B-movie with an A-list cast”, and quite frankly I can’t top that. 21 Bridges is a pretty straightforward crime thriller, with even the ‘twist’ signposted practically from the beginning. And yet, it’s well made with an excellent cast, and manages to be perfectly watchable and indeed, quite enjoyable.

Still, there’s nothing too novel here. Production values aside, this could have been made at pretty much any point from the 1970s onward. Grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the action – brain not particularly required.

Released: 22nd November 2019
Viewed: 22nd November 2019
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

Legion (season 1)

We meet David Haller as a patient in Clockworks mental institution, where he’s been for the past several years after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. But what if the voices he hears aren’t mental illness at all – what if he’s actually one of the most powerful mutants on the planet?

Legion is part of the X-Men universe (and similar but not quite to Brandon Sanderson’s Legion, at least in theme), based on the Marvel Comics (which I’ve never read, so no views on the adaptation). However, this bears little resemblance to the movies, and is all the better for it, in my opinion. The look is oddly old-fashioned – fashion, old-school tech – maybe 60s or 70s, but it’s not a period piece. It’s not about saving the world, or acting like superheros, but the far more personal story of one man fighting for a life worth living.

Story-wise, this needs a little attentioned paid. David’s life goes from boring routine to terrifying flight; the amazement of learning about his new abilities and the horror of his past. Things jump back and forth between the different times and memories, really brilliantly mirroring some of the confusion of David’s illness.

As things progress, everything gets that bit weirder. There are other mutants, and a shadowy quasi-government department. There is a lot of mystery around David’s abilities and ‘illness’ – who or what is the yellow-eyed demon, for instance?

I absolutely loved this first series. It makes so much sense that mutant abilities could be mistaken for mental illness, and being told it’s actually super-power is still greeted with so much doubt. But then – oh! Yeah, no spoilers 😉 I particularly liked the performances of Dan Stevens as David, on his journey from meek to figuring himself out, and Aubrey Plaza as Lenny who gets to run the gamut of unhinged, sexy, predatory and just out there.

If you can, it really works as a binge-watch, one episode flowing into the next, helping you as best as you can to keep hold of the twisty thread of things. Everything is very weird, from the deep sea diver in an ice cube to the various powers, and the style is very reflective of this: tilt-shift camera shots, a bollywood number, odd mental tricks and traps. But if you’re willing to go for the ride, I absolutely think it’s worth it!

First broadcast: 2017 – rewatched ahead of final season
Series: 1 of 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10