Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Birds of Prey is a movie I have wanted to see for a very, very long time. I think we are way overdue for an action movie led by a female cast and I’m thrilled that it is as good as it ought to be. The film has a scrappy, can-do vibe populated by vivid characters who are very well cast. The action scenes, and there are plenty, are a lot of fun and I didn’t really feel like there was a wasted moment. I love this movie.

Margot Robbie returns as the Joker’s ex-flame Harley Quinn who, after breaking up with her psychotic boyfriend, discovers the only reason nobody tried to kill her before was because of fear of the Joker’s reprisals. Now that she is on her own, she finds she has a huge target on her back. Ewan MacGregor plays crime boss Ramon Sionis, aka Black Mask, who is especially interested in killing Quinn until she makes a deal to get him a diamond he is anxious to possess but has been stolen by street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Also in the mix are Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Valerie Bertinelli/Huntress and Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, plus Chris Messina in a surprising turn as Sionis’ sadistic henchman, Mr. Zsasz.

The storyline, narrated by Harley Quinn, jumps back and forth in time, breaking up a straightforward McGuffin-hunt into entertaining sections that give each character enough backstory for us to actually care about them and understand their motivations (a rare thing in superhero movies). Christina Hodson’s script is very ably brought to life by Cathy Yan’s direction and the actors are all great. I thought everyone was terrific in their roles, especially MacGregor who threatens to steal every scene he is in. Jurnee Smollet-Bell was a real discovery here for me; I thought she did a great job with Dinah Lance/Black Canary. I also loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her super-seriousness which everyone makes fun of.

This movie, along with Joker, Shazam! and Wonder Woman, is a great example of why I prefer DC to Marvel. DC has had more than their share of missteps, but I appreciate the unpredictability of their movies over the tedious formula used over and over by Marvel. Birds of Prey is definitely for mature audiences, not only for the frequent salty language but also the bone-crunching and bloody violence on display. It also treats its sexual politics with a knowingly serious but deftly light touch, which I really appreciated.

Birds of Prey is the first movie of 2020 I was seriously looking forward to and it did not disappoint. The production design is colourful yet gritty, the characters well-served by a good script and great casting and the action is a lot of fun to watch. I found myself laughing more than I expected and, although it does get a bit silly in places, it’s no different from other films in the superhero genre in that regard. I never felt insulted by what I was watching and I will certainly be seeing it again.




Here is my list of my favourite movies of 2019, now that I have caught up with the late releases of December. And, while we’re at it, I feel I should list my favourite movies of the past decade as an addendum, so keep scrolling.

#1: 1917

I saw some good ones this year, but for me Sam Mendes’ 1917 was jaw-dropping in its execution of a seemingly single-take narrative of two soldiers tasked with delivering orders across No Man’s Land. The imagery is powerful and evocative, the cinematography astonishing (especially the city in ruins at night lit by rising and descending flares) and the performances by everyone are beautifully understated. I’ve seen it twice and the second time was even more powerful than the first. Truly awesome.


#2: Toy Story 4

When I first heard they were making a fourth installment in a series that ended over a decade before on an impossible-to-beat note, I thought it was a terrible idea. Never in a million years would I have expected the filmmakers to top the untoppable, but I was wrong. Toy Story 4 did it with such heart and sincerity and empathy that I was completely floored. Whereas the third film saves all of its emotional power for the finale, this one is an emotional roller coaster from start to end that had me in tears as often as laughter. I adore this movie.


#3: The Lighthouse

As much as I love traditional glossy Hollywod product, I love the other end of the spectrum at least as much. The Lighthouse is a dark, weird and minimal story about two men trapped together in a lighthouse, slowly descending into madness. The black-and-white cinematography and the square aspect ratio lend a lot to the oppressive atmosphere and Willem DaFoe is mesmerizing.


#4: Parasite

This Korean film is a wicked satire about class antagonism which I loved. The tone is light until it starts twisting in truly unexpected ways as it progresses. I loved the dark sense of humour that toyed with my sympathies at first playfully, then more conflictingly as everything unravels toward the end. What I love most about it is how multi-faceted it is; there are a lot of ways to look at it and pick it apart which, to me, is the sign of real art.


#5: Joker

Another film I thought was a bad idea from the outset but turned out to be just right. Humanizing a psychopath like the Joker is very dangerous, in my opinion, but the brilliance of the film is in the ways that it tests your sympathy. Initially, you feel sorry for the guy, but at a certain point he crosses a line. Where that line is for different audiences is interesting to note, but I do think the movie is good as an overall look at the narcissism and lack of empathy that poisons society. Also, after Heath Ledger, I didn’t think there was anywhere left to go with the character, but Joaquin Phoenix proved me wrong.



This is not a list that can easily be arranged in any kind of order. Looking back at the movies that came out in the past ten years, it has been a truly astonishing decade for film. I could have simply put the movies from previous years’ favourites list, but instead I chose movies that have stuck with me for one reason or another since I saw them. Here they are chronologically.

  • Inception (2010) – What a way to start the decade! Inverted heist movie with a star-studded cast under Christopher Nolan’s masterful direction.
  • Bridesmaids (2011) – Great comedy, gut-bustingly funny stuff with a really sweet heart at its center.
  • Cloud Atlas (2012) – Unbelievably ambitious narrative, packing six stories spanning several centuries into a single movie that I found to be so compelling I had to put it on my top ten all-time favourites list.
  • Gravity (2013) – The most thrilling ride I’ve ever had in a cinema, I had to see this one five times and it is one of only two movies I believe are enhanced by the 3D experience.
  • 12 Years A Slave (2013) – Quiet, understated but tremendously moving for all its subtlety. The poetry of its images is still strongly in my mind.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Absolutely delightful comedy that balances whimsy and tragedy like no other. And what a cast!
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – The best X-Men movie, in my opinion, with character motivations as compelling as the plot is complex.
  • Birdman (2014) – Wonderful characters and hilarious situations are everywhere in this story of showbiz madness, ego and death told in a single take.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Phenomenal. Wall-to-wall action, mind-blowing production design and eye-popping stunts combine to make this quite possibly the greatest action movie ever made.
  • Arrival (2016) – It’s hard to think of another sci-fi film that approaches alien contact so intelligently, but the real power in this movie is its emotional core which squeezes tears out of me every single time I watch it. Absolutely beautiful.
  • Moonlight (2016) – One of a handful of movies I’ve seen that truly made me feel transported into another person’s life, this is one of the most amazing exercises in empathy I’ve ever seen.
  • La La Land (2016) – A really sweet story of love and respect that swept me away with its charming leads and the most surprising and satisfying ending of any rom-com ever.
  • Toni Erdmann (2016) – This German film about a practical-joking father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter swings the pendulum from the ultimate in cringe-humour to the most heart-breaking empathy. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried so hard in one movie.
  • mother! (2017) – This movie is black as pitch in its scathing portrayal of humanity’s confused struggle with nature and religion. At least, that’s what I got out of this surreal, oppressive, incredibly dark fever dream that is unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. Intense.
  • Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – That rare beast of cinema, a sequel that improves upon the original. Tonally consistent with its predecessor but with a far more satisfying emotional payoff.
  • Sorry to Bother You (2018) – This movie is full of surprises and is a wonderful example of scrappy indie spirit making the most of meager resources to create something really different, funny and smart.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The best Spider-Man movie ever, in my opinion, told with a really fresh and dynamic animation style.
  • Eighth Grade (2018) – Simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, I was amazed at the universality of the story: no matter the era, being 13 is the worst time of your life.
  • Hereditary (2018) – The most fascinating horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time, this movie has a terrific story with some truly shocking turns, but it’s Toni Collette’s performance that is really something to behold.
  • 1917 (2019) – Single-take journey across the war-torn fields of Europe in World War I, this movie shows you things you’ve never seen before and has some of the most rousing moments in any war film.

And those are just twenty examples of the amazing movies of the past decade. Here’s hoping the next decade is as exciting!

Film Review: Bombshell

Among the best films of 2019

Great cast and a terrific script make this one of 2019’s best movies. Written by Charles Randolph, who also wrote The Big Short (2015), the movie has a breezy, whip-smart style that is very similar. The film hits the right notes and the characters are all well-defined, brought to life by very talented actors from top to bottom. I found it funny and moving, which is as much as I can expect from any movie, and among the best movies I’ve seen in 2019.

Based on the sexual harassment suit that brought down Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, wonderful as always), the story focuses on Margot Robbie’s Kayla, a composite character who serves as the audience’s cypher. She’s the daughter of a conservative christian family who only watch Fox News, convinced that the mainstream media is sending the country to hell. She comes to the attention of the predatory Ailes at the same time as Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) launches her lawsuit after being demoted. Charlize Theron also features as Megyn Kelly, the most high-profile of the women connected to Ailes’ sexual harassment.

Making a deal with the devil

The sexual politics of Fox manifest strongest in Ailes’ talent for pitting women against each other so that when his behaviour comes to light, none will support each other. The movie does a good job of showing the compromise each of them faces, having become used to the money and attention their jobs afford them, but at the price of ignoring abuse and tolerating it when it comes at them. The theme here seems to be how to come to terms with making a deal with the devil, as each woman feels utterly isolated in her plight and afraid of repuercussions beyond job action that turning on their boss might entail.

First of all, I think the performances all around are terrific. I found Margot Robbie’s Kayla immensely sympathetic despite her right-wing conservative naivety. She’s clearly someone who is a victim of lifelong brainwashing. Nicole Kidman does a great job of making me actually feel something for Gretchen Carlson, whose endless schilling of rightwing crap on Fox made me detest her. Charlize Theron is almost unrecognizable in prosthetics and speaking with the clipped, uptight elocution of Megyn Kelly and she manages to create a compelling characterization of someone whom I disdain as much as Gretchen Carlson. It’s quite a thing when actors make repulsive people sympathetic, I think, but when it comes to John Lithgow as Roger Ailes there doesn’t seem to be any point in aiming for sympathy and instead we get Jabba the Hutt in human form and I love Lithgow for it.

Taking the money and looking the other way

The supporting cast is full of welcome surprises, from Mark Duplass as Megyn Kelly’s husband to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch and the always delightful Allison Janney as Roger Ailes’ attorney, but it’s the strength of the script and the able direction that allows them all to shine. The movie has a lot of laughs but when it needs to be serious it delivers strong emotions. In the end you are left with a sense of some sort of justice being done, but also a strong sense that the only reason these situations continue is because people won’t stand up and call out bullshit. Taking the money and looking the other way enables such injustice to prevail. Taking a stand means putting yourself at odds with the establishment and risking ostracism from ones peers, but who needs peers who are so unprincipled that they’ll stand by and allow the victimization of others?

Bombshell is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2019. It has an intelligent script, a wise director and superb actors at every level. It’s funny, poignant, moving and rewarding. I highly recommend it.

Review: Joker

Great movie. It is complex, operating on a lot of levels, but also quite emotionally powerful and very, very mature. It is possibly the most grounded and realistic interpretation of a DC comics character yet and Joaquin Phonex is phenomenal as the central character. I loved the way it was shot and the tone of it, so much like Taxi Driver that it felt like it was made around the same time. I think Joker is a really great movie, among the best of 2019.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire with aspirations of being a stand-up comedian but plagued by mental illness of which one of the symptoms is uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. He lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) a shut-in who idolizes Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and writes letters to him from a very run-down apartment in a rough part of town. Arthur makes a bid for comedy at an open-mic night but bombs so badly, Gotham’s top-rated talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) puts the clip on the air as an object of ridicule. After being assaulted on the job, Arthur is given a gun for protection which he uses to shoot three Wall Street bullies who assault him on the subway. This sets off a city-wide class conflict when the “vigilante clown” is taken up as a hero by the resentful poor of the city who all don clown masks to descend on city hall at the climax of the film, which coincides with Arthur’s appearance as a guest on the Murray Franklin show, booked after the unexpected hit episode where he was made fun of. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is perfect, given the character and his questionable mental state.

It’s really a story about denial and narcissism

First of all, the story is excellent, with Arthur’s struggles front and center but writ large on the canvas of the city around him. The time is roughly 1981 and the world we see is truly the world he inhabits. The bleakness of Raegan-era recession is presented in piled-up garbage everywhere symbolizing societal decay, an outward reflection of Arthur’s social decay and illness which only gets worse when cutbacks to social programs force him off his medication. The influence of films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are as strong as the character’s comic book lore and I found lots of Easter eggs for fans of both sources. The script (by director Todd Phillip and Scott Silver) and Phoenix’s performance generate empathy for the character on the one hand but also revulsion at the heinous acts he commits. What you end up with is not so much sympathy as understanding and, I think, a positive sense that facts have to be faced and the need for empathy and kindness in our world. It’s really a story about denial and narcissism, of seeing only what we want to see and shutting out everything and everyone else. It felt to me as much a story about the breakdown of society as much as the breakdown of a man. Very compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in this movie. I thought, after what Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger each achieved, followed by Jared Letos’ failure to measure up, there was nothing left in the character, but I was very wrong. Phoenix brings a powerful, repressed intensity to it that is new and sad and scary. His physicality is astounding, from his wiry physique and clownish dancing to what he does with his eyes while laughing to convey that there’s really nothing funny about the situation. It’s an absolutely fascinating performance and he dominates you attention every second he’s on screen. The rest of the cast is great too, everyone inhabiting their roles authentically, but nobody comes close to what Phoenix does here.

We don’t need more insanity

The cinematography and production design are all terrific. The movie feels as if it was made in the time it was set. There are some very interesting design choices as well, such as the use of simple Halloween clown masks echoing the Joker’s gang of bank robbers from the opening sequence of The Dark Knight as well as mirroring the use of the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta as a symbol for global protest. There is violence, for sure, though not as much as you might think. I felt it was at a totally appropriate level, harsh enough for you to feel the brutality but not gratuitous. The soundtrack is great, filled with weirdly nostalgic music which further makes it feel from another time. Despite all of its trappings and mood, however, I found it also feels very contemporary and cautionary for today. I don’t think Joker is political so much as it is apolitical, pointing out hypocrisy on every side. I think what it says is more along the lines of “we don’t need more insanity.”

I loved Joker. I think it’s intelligent, complex, fascinating and darkly funny. There is a lot to chew on and it is worth seeing more than once. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing to watch and the story gives him a lot to work with while also being a cautionary tale about social breakdown. It is certainly the most mature treatment of comic book superhero material I’ve ever seen on screen.

I also think Mark Kermode’s review is on-target.

Mark Kermode’s review
Official trailer

Review: GLOW – Season 3

I have been a big fan of this show since I started watching it because of its recurring themes of friendship and kindness and season three has delivered on the promise of the first two. I adore GLOW, I think it’s a wonderful series about empowerment and support that covers a wide range of emotions.

This season is all about Vegas, where the GLOW was headed at the end of season two. There are major character developments for just about everyone and some really moving moments. My favourite aspect of the show is how funny it can be while also being heartbreaking and touching. I find myself in tears almost as often as I’m laughing at the things going on.

Season three expands the characters by adding Geena Davis as hotel manager Sandy Devereaux St. Clair and Kevin Cahoon as drag performer Bobby Barnes. There are hair-raising moments and big developments for many of the major characters, especially Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie lead the show with aplomb and Marc Maron is great as always. The great cast of fun and diverse characters is without a doubt the attraction, but the series writing really is its best aspect.

GLOW Season 3 is on Netflix now and I highly recommend it.

Film Review – Toy Story 4

Achieves the impossible by topping the third film.

I went into this movie with a lot of trepidation because I love Toy Story 3 so deeply that I was sure any further entry was bound to fail. I was wrong. Toy Story 4 achieves the impossible by topping what was already a perfect ending to a trilogy as well as a perfect film in and of itself. I laughed and I cried more than I have at any other movie that I can remember and I adored the themes and reversals of expectation the film constantly hit me with. I don’t think I’ll see a better movie this year.

In this entry, Bonnie (the child owner of the toys) builds a new toy made out of trash in arts and crafts at kindergarten. Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) suffers an identity crisis, thinking himself trash, and Woody (Tom Hanks) takes it on as his mission to help Forky understand his importance to Bonnie as her new favourite toy. The family goes on a road trip and Forky jumps out the window of the moving RV, followed by Woody who will not let Bonnie down, determined to find Forky and bring him back to her. The two end up in an antique store where old toys nobody wants have turned somewhat sinister. Woody escapes and runs into Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who was absent from the last film for reasons explained in this film’s prologue. Since then she has become a Lost Toy with a fiercely independent streak and helps Woody rescue Forky, with the rest of the gang pitching in.

I found the movie to be an emotional roller-coaster. It starts innocuously enough with a heart-warming montage of Woody’s life but then begins to tread on some existential territory with Forky’s difficulty in accepting what he is, which is like an external metaphor for the issues Woody has to face. There are even questions asked like “what does it mean to be a toy” and “why are we alive?” which took me by surprise, being in a family film, and I really liked the positive theme of compassion running throughout, especially where it concerned the supposed villain of the film, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), who wants to replace her defective talk-box with Woody’s. Some of her scenes were the heaviest, emotionally.

The real stand-out for me is Bo Peep’s character. Her agency and her independence reminded me a lot of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, including such details as having a detachable right arm and driving a vaguely Max-universe vehicle. She’s amazing, especially with Annie Potts’ great self-assurance in her delivery, just a beautifully realized character.

The other winner of my admiration is Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), Canada’s Greatest Stuntman, a vainglorious motorcycle stunt-toy in the mold of Evil Kenevil, but wearing a white cape and jumpsuit emblazoned with a red maple leaf. I adore good-hearted glory hounds who lack self-awareness and every scene he was in was a ton of fun. I particularly loved his catch-phrase, “Yes, I Can-ada!”

The visuals in the movie are tremendously sophisticated and treading on photo-real at times with things like the storm sequence in the prologue. There’s no question Pixar renders amazing images, but there are so many wonderfully framed shots and visual metaphors laced throughout the movie that it makes you marvel at the amount of thought and care that had to have gone into everything, which is always in support of that theme of compassion that elevates the movie to astounding heights.

I really, really loved Toy Story 4 and I think it is even better than the third because, whereas the third saved all of its heart and brains for the payoff, this movie keeps on surprising you with the twists and turns of the plot as much as its emotional ups-and-downs. All of the characters have wonderful depth and agency, with Woody and Bo Peep forming the best on-screen couple since Max and Furiosa, or Ripley and Hicks before them. The themes of compassion and responsibility are really powerful and balanced marvelously by the humour and visual gags. It’s an amazingly well-made movie and probably my favourite film of 2019.

Review: Black Mirror – Season 5

I love Black Mirror and have been a fan ever since discovering it around season 3. The show is dark and twisted but also has its lighter moments and the three new episodes that constitute season 5 are exemplary of the show’s varied imagination.

Striking Vipers is a story about two friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reunite after years apart and bond over a sophisticated VR fighting game which soon becomes a conduit for unrequited feelings the two friends have. I was genuinely surprised by the early twist in the storyline and I really appreciated its maturity and sensitivity in dealing with the subject matter. I also loved the ending.

In Smithereens, Andrew Scott plays a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown who takes hostage an employee of the tech giant behind Persona, a Facebook-like social media platform, demanding to have a phone call with its Zuckerberg-esque creator. I found it struck an astounding balance between tragedy and comedy, making me laugh out loud several times as well as shed a tear at one point.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too features Miley Cyrus as a pop sensation whose new AI doll becomes the prized possession of Angourie Rice’s Rachel, but her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) has concerns about its influence. This episode is much more light-hearted in its execution, even if it has some dark material, striking and almost Scooby-Doo vibe at times, but I found it quite fun and well-earned after the seriousness of the previous two episodes. Plus, it gave me a new respect for Miley Cyrus.

Black Mirror is probably my favourite TV show. I love how intelligent and mature it is and how the series is more about quality than quantity, as each season is pretty short. The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is its anthology nature. Every episode is its own self-contained story and you can start anywhere; the quality is such that you will know in one or two episodes if this show is for you or not. Personally, I love it.

Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

This Easter Sunday, I went to the Rio to see Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. It’s a movie that, much like Star Wars, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and viewed countless times, but seeing it for the first time on a big screen with an audience of enthusiastic fans was electrifying.

First and foremost, the music is awesome. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies and Tim Rice’s lyrics are epic, intimate, haunting, joyful, fascinating and forever singable, all of which are in service to a slightly strange movie with very impressive visuals. It seems predicated upon the idea that a bunch of theatrical performers decide to stage the rock opera in the middle of the Israeli desert using a funny mix of props and costumes that range from period-accurate rough cloth robes and sandals to chrome-helmeted, tank-top wearing, Uzi-carrying Roman soldiers, and all of the sets are either ruins, landscapes or caves.

Amazingly ahead of its time in casting

The imagery in the film is really terrific, as shot by Douglas Slocombe who went on to do the first three Indiana Jones films, among others. The composition, the framing and the camera movement are all wonderfully conceived and executed, which is to say nothing of the amazing choreography on display. The performers in this film are incredible athletes when you look at the kinds of moves they are doing in the hot desert conditions. Most impressive of all is the diversity of players on display, with a white Jesus (Ted Neely), black Judas (Carl Anderson) and Hawaiian Mary (Yvonne Elliman) surrounded by a rainbow of supporting cast. For a movie made over 40 years ago, it is amazingly ahead of its time in casting and it’s stunning that it has taken the rest of Hollywood this long to catch up.

My favourite sequence of all is, of course, the title number, which they save for the end. Carl Anderson coming down from heaven dressed in tassled whites on a crane to be joined by a host of dancing angels is something indescribably fun, especially with the accompanying track. I love the joyful playfulness of the lyrics “Buddha, was he where it’s at, is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just P.R.?” presented with a huge production number. It may appear to be superficially irreverent, but I think Jesus Christ Superstar is closer to the humanity and the truth of the story than any stuffy Sunday school sermon.

Sympathetic portrayal of Judas

I am not a christian, but I am a humanist, and this particular rendition of the Jesus story is the most humanistic and the only one I can really enjoy. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s the humility of each character, how everyone seems to have flaws in some way or another, even Jesus whose doubts about his fate ironically coming out of a kind of determined fatalism. It’s really the story’s sympathetic portrayal of Judas that has always stood out to me, and I think that’s why I’ve always had a hard time with the traditional image of him as the worst of humanity. I think maybe even at a very young age I could smell how judgemental organized religion tends to be.

In any case, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favourite films of all-time and seeing it on a big screen with an audience made seeing it at the Rio one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. I loved every minute of it.

The Matrix: 20th Anniversary

Still Great Entertainment 20 Years On

I managed to catch a screening at the Rio of this sci-fi masterpiece which has aged very well, in my opinion. It’s a little clunky in places and the dialogue is largely bad, but the story is so well plotted that there is a constant state of anticipation throughout, punctuated by beautifully executed action sequences. It is still a great movie.

What I remember most from seeing it 20 years ago is the sense of how much story is packed into it. I distinctly recall the scene when Neo wakes up from the Matrix into the real world and thinking “Holy crap! That’s just the first act!” What would typically have been saved as the big reveal at the climax of an ordinary movie was merely the first major plot point. And the rest of the movie is structured magnificently, with every scene carrying the story forward at such a speed you don’t really have time to stop and look around and question things. You just want to know what happens next, always against a backdrop of rising tension until you get to the action-packed third act that hardly rests for a second.

The movie does have a very 90s feel to it, but in a good way and without feeling actually dated. Much like ALIEN (1979), there is very little on screen that actually betrays its time of origin, yet The Matrix manages to distill the esthetic and tone of 90s cinema perfectly. The gunfight in the lobby that opens Act 3 is a perfect example. It still manages to be exciting as hell, and the entire movie is put together exceptionally well in every department, from production design to fight choreography to editing and many in between. The Wachowski siblings who conceived, wrote and directed it achieved something unique with this movie.

The film’s only weak point is its dialogue and one or two performances, although Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne deserve special mention for their awesome charisma. There were many lines that got a groan from the audience I saw it with and I can’t blame them, some of the lines the actors have are dreadful. It’s a lot like Star Wars (1977) in that the dialogue is very poor but the plotting is excellent, with characters who are basically just there to advance the story. I like the way the filmmakers sprinkled little tidbits of philosophy throughout the film, but they are mostly the ones that are visualized (the metaphor of the Matrix is brilliant) and not so much the ones that are spoken aloud. It still manages to be a thinking person’s sci-fi/action movie, at any rate, with elements so perfectly balanced that there never feels like an excess of anything.

It’s a hell of a fun ride. Twenty years later and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal. I think The Matrix is a genuine classic of sci-fi cinema with big ideas and big set-pieces to keep you interested and entertained and is still a great film.

Review: Shazam!

Big meets Superman is another step in the right direction for DC movies

I really loved this movie, it is charming as hell and really fun with unexpected darkness and edge as well as a surprising amount of heart. Not all of the jokes work, but I really enjoyed the playful tone and found it brought some new ideas to the overly familiar tropes of super-hero movies. There is some corn and some cheese but I laughed and I even had tears in my eyes at times.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a mildly anarchic 14 year-old foster child who has bounced from home to home since being lost by his mother in a crowd. He is taken in by Rosa and Victor Vasquez, the interracial couple at the head of a wonderfully multi-racial family of five other foster kids. The film has a really beautiful through-line about family and the importance of love transcending blood, as the villain of the piece, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), though the biological son of a privileged family, is unhappy at his father’s lack of love and motivated to evil acts by the demonic embodiment of the seven deadly sins, which are entombed and guarded over by a dying wizard called Shazam (Djimon Honsou) until released by Sivana in his quest for power and revenge. The wizard, too weak to take up the fight, magically finds his champion of good in Billy Batson and transfers his power to him so that he can stop the forces of evil.

I love stories about misfits and outsiders, and the thing I think I liked most about this movie was its emphasis on family and responsibility, which I find a bit lacking in many super-hero films. Asher Angel is quite relatable and likable as the young Billy whose personal quest to find a family is initially all about finding his mother, only to ultimately learn his foster family, though they aren’t blood, represent more of a home. Zachary Levi is very appealing as Billy’s alter-ego Shazam and watching him come to terms with his powers a well as his full-grown adult body is a big part of the fun, but he also manages to give the weightier moments their emotional due. Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, the foster child closest in age to Billy and thus his friend (and coach when he discovers his super-powers), is very good as the sarcastic but good-natured disabled kid who idolizes super-heroes and would give anything for the kind of power Billy quickly comes to take for granted. Mark Strong is always a welcome presence and I liked watching him make the villain’s scenes work. I thought Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews were wonderful as the Vasquez parents, who are a bit too perfect on paper yet played with charm, but I think my favourite character has to be Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), an adorable little black girl with glasses and the youngest of the foster kids.

The film is a tad overlong and I think it cold have been a little tighter. The villain’s plot is simple enough, with Sivana seeking to claim Shazam’s power from Billy, so a lot of the film depends on Billy’s story and the supporting cast, most of whose scenes work really well. The film has a handsome design aesthetic with bright colours and bold silhouettes for the hero bits and a kitchen-sink domestic drama look for the more mundane moments. That constant alternation between the super and the down-to-earth reminded me pleasantly of the exceptional Spider-Man 2 (2004). I think some of the attempts at humour are a bit forced and some didn’t land for me, but others work really well and I laughed out loud many times during the film, so it’s a little uneven but still a great time. And the usual super-heroic CGI climax has some surprises, one in particular that I was genuinely tickled by. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s one of those rare moments of fan lore that works as both an easter egg for those in the know as well as a major plot device for those less familiar with the comics. The film is also peppered with homages to other super-hero films and properties ranging from subtle to overt which made it a lot of fun for me to watch.

Shazam! is definitely a step in the right direction for Warner Brothers and the DC universe films, following the examples set by Wonder Woman and Aquaman. It’s playful, colourful and ultimately optimistic with enough novel ideas to give the genre a little more spin. What really matters most to me, though, is the emphasis on family and responsibility which gives the movie a tremendous heart that shines through like the glowing lightning bolt on Zachary Levi’s chest. I loved Shazam! and will certainly be seeing it again.