3 stars

REVIEW: Little Monsters (2019)

When washed-up musician Dave (Alexander England) volunteers to accompany his nephew Felix’s (Diesel La Torraca) kindergarten class on a school trip, he doesn’t expect to have to team up with the teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and kids TV presenter Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) to protect the children from zombies.

Going into this film all I knew of it was that Lupita Nyong’o goes up against zombies, so the fact this film starts with a couple continuously arguing in public whether it’s in a supermarket or at a restaurant with friends did make me wonder how it got to the hook I knew of. One half of that arguing couple is Dave and while the third act does try and redeem him and make him a less selfish character it’s almost too late as he’s such an insufferable, self-obsessed guy for the majority of the film that it’s difficult to actually care about him. His relationship with his nephew does work (even though he’s definitely not a responsible adult or decent role model a lot of the time) though that’s mostly down to how sweet the young actor playing Felix is.

In fact, all the young actors are great and it’s the juxtaposition of their cuteness and innocence with the bloody zombies that makes Little Monsters work. Once the story brings Dave and Miss Caroline together, and in fact gives her a more prominent role, the film works a lot better for me. Nyong’o is fantastic as the teacher who will do anything in her power to protect her children and to make sure they aren’t scared.

Little Monsters is a horror comedy and while personally the comedy side of things wasn’t particularly laugh out loud funny, the way Miss Caroline protects the children by pretending everything is a game is sweet and amusing. Her interactions with Teddy McGiggle are a highlight as you get to see the soft, kind teacher become no nonsense and firm in a whole different way. In fact, having Gad playing against type works pretty well here as this is a children’s TV presenter who does not like children and does not do well in a crisis.

If you’re looking for a more light-hearted horror film then Little Monsters might work for you. The zombies look suitably bloody and gruesome and but having the focus being on a kindergarten class almost adds an air of safety to proceedings – because would they really allow zombies to maul some adorable little kids? 3/5.

REVIEW: No Time to Die (2021)

After going into retirement and feeling betrayed by Madeline (Léa Seydoux), the woman he gave up MI6 for, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is enjoying the anonymity of the quiet life. That is until Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), an old friend from the CIA, turns up asking Bond for help, setting him on the tail of a mysterious and powerful man with dangerous new technology.

No Time to Die opens with a tense prologue before going into a thrilling car chase as Bond’s world once again comes crashing down. The action sequences in No Time to Die are excellent with hand-to-hand fights being shot close and without being heavily edited so you can actually see and feel what James Bond is going through. The various car chases are great too as at times you feel like you really are immersed in the action and are about to be crushed by a flying car.

In terms of the villain of No Time to Die, Rami Malek’s Safin almost feels like a cameo. It takes at least to the half way mark of the (almost three hour-long) film to see his face and while he does the job of being threatening and eerie with his monologues, it’s the technology he plans to use that is far more terrifying. The villain shouldn’t come second to their end-of-the-world-ploy but here he does. The technology Bond and MI6 have set out to stop is the world-ending kind and perhaps it’s because of what we have all lived through these past two year makes the device seem all the more real and scary.

The relationship between Bond and Madeline is a core part of this film, and Bond’s motivations. However, personally I’ve never really seen the chemistry between Craig and Seydoux. While they both give good performances individually, when together something doesn’t quite click.

Welcome additions to the franchise are Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, a double-oh agent who has not so friendly banter with Bond, and Ana de Armas’ Paloma, an agent Bond briefly teams up with in Cuba. Nomi and Bond work well together on screen as while they are both highly trained operatives, she is more of a soldier and willing to follow orders compared to Bond’s more rogue-nature. Paloma is an absolute delight and like a breath of fresh air and it’s a shame we only get her for such a brief amount of time. She is young but capable and so much fun – her fight scenes were different and interesting compare to Bond’s and show her physicality as she throws guns at men’s heads as well as just shooting at them.

While No Time to Die is certainly a very good send off for Daniel Craig’s James Bond, it does leave you wondering the fate of other characters like Ben Whishaw’s Q and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny. This is unfortunate and for me a bit of a bugbear as the wider MI6 cast that have been surrounding Craig’s Bond for so long is something I’ve really come to enjoy. It’s their interactions with Bond and each other that have made MI6 feel more real and the whole thing more grounded as James Bond does have a team behind him, whether or not he actually listens to them/goes to them for help is besides the point.

No Time to Die is action-packed and often thrilling. While it doesn’t have a memorable villain and the plot does feel a bit convoluted at times, Daniel Craig’s performance is what pulls everything together and manages to keep the film on track. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Fourteen-year-old Beka and her best friend Toycie (who’s seventeen) are on the cusp of adulthood. They have family, school and boys to contend with as their home and everyone they know have to deal with the political upheaval as Belize strives towards independence.

Beka Lamb is set in the early 1950s and at this point Belize was a British colony. Throughout the novel there’s mentions of different political parties, how products coming from different countries mean different things, and Beka’s grandmother is heavily involved and up to date with the meetings that are happening in town. I knew nothing of Belize’s history before reading Beka Lamb and the way the politics of the country are interwoven in the story made things easy to understand and gave context to the reasons why characters said and did certain things. Having the story be from Beka’s point of view meant that there was almost a naivety to it at times as she had a lot of growing up to do.

As well as the political upheaval Beka’s family are living through there’s also how the Catholic church is a dominating presence in their lives – especially Beka and Toycie’s as the school they go to is run by nuns. The influence the women at the school have over them and the wider society can’t be underestimated. When Beka’s father asks them for help or even understanding when a situation arises, they refuse saying it’s a slight upon the school and their values.

The friendship between Beka and Toycie is the really heart of this story. Even though there’s three years between them they are really close and help each other in different ways. Toycie can help Beka with her school work while Beka will be a sometimes-reluctant alibi when Toycie wants to sneak out to see a boy. The differences in their homelives are glaring but also shows how strong their friendship is as there’s no resentment from Toycie. Beka lives with her parents, young brothers and her grandmother and while not well-off they don’t struggle financially. Toycie on the other hand lives with her aunt and she does struggle to provide for Toycie and is clearly living below the poverty line.

Beka Lamb is a pretty standard coming of age story; Beka tries to find her voice, do well in school, and stop lying. Having this story set in Belize and in a time of political and social upheaval adds extra layers to Beka’s story and while some thing’s are universal, others are deeply personal. 3/5.

REVIEW: Copshop (2021)

To escape the assassin on his tail, con artist Teddy (Frank Grillo) gets himself arrested by rookie cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) so he can hide out in a small-town police station but when the hitman (Gerard Butler) turns up at the precinct things don’t go according to plan and Valerie finds herself caught in the crossfire.

Directed by Joe Carnahan, Copshop is full of larger-than-life characters, gunfights, swearing and chaos. Set primarily in the police station, this film makes great use of the space as the action unfolds. It’s the scenes in the holding cells between Valerie, Teddy and the assassin (kept in separate cells) that standout – especially when things go wrong and Valerie is trapped in the holding cells with the two of them. The verbal sparring between the three is great and while Gerard Butler is good as hired killer Bob, his performance is of the more quiet and menacing kind, and he seems more than happy to give his co-stars the floor.

Teddy is the kind of wily conman character who you want to trust even though you really shouldn’t. It probably helps that Frank Grillo is a charismatic guy who, when not playing out and out villains, often plays characters that verge into more of an antihero. So, it’s easy to see why Valerie might be more willing to trust Teddy (a conman) than Bob (an assassin). With Teddy there’s more of a grey area but to her as a cop Bob is the opposite of the law.

Alexis Louder as Valerie is the true standout. She holds her own against her growly counterparts and knows exactly what film she’s in. She makes Valerie a fully realised character through her playfulness with a friend to her intelligence baiting a colleague who she’s not sure can be trusted. Plus, she’s got the physicality to handle the action sequences too.

Copshop does lose momentum at times but it’s the off-the-wall characters keep you interested and it’s hard not to have a smile on your face when the guns start firing. Got to give a shoutout to Toby Huss’s hitman Anthony Lamb too, he’s delightfully unhinged and is a great contrast to Butler and Grillo. 3/5.

REVIEW: Black and Blue (2019)

After capturing footage of corrupt cops killing unarmed young black men on her bodycam, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is on the run from the police as she fights to get the truth out there.

Black and Blue is the kind of film you’ve probably seen before. It’s a corrupt cop film that follows some very similar beats to films that have come before it and in fact the final showdown definitely had some echoes of Training Day. That’s not to say Black and Blue is a bad film, it’s just one that has very few surprises.

Naomi Harris is very good in the lead role, capturing the resolve to do what’s right while being unsure of who she can trust because just about every other cop she encounters as she tries to get back to the police station to upload the bodycam footage seems to have an ulterior motive. The one person she does learn to trust is Tyrese Gibson’s Mouse, a guy who works at a shop and doesn’t want any trouble but ends up helping her anyway. Having mostly seen Gibson in the Transformers and Fast and Furious franchises where he’s often cracking a joke every five minutes, it was nice to see him tackle a more serious role where his character was more stoic and thoughtful.

Almost unsurprisingly Frank Grillo plays the lead corrupt cop. He always does a good job of playing a bad guy though his character seems to have a slight manic edge to it that doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the tone that Harris and Gibson seem to be going for. Still, he’s always fun to watch and the scenes where he’s stalking Harris’ West are quite tense.

Themes of racial tension and whether or not a Black person can still be Black while being a police officer are sprinkled throughout the film. Black and Blue never really commits to these themes though; it’s like it’s trying to combine more recent Black Live Matter messages with a corrupt cop film of the late 90s/early 2000s and it doesn’t really hit the mark. West is someone who sees people as people and while she knows some people who ended up affiliated with gangs, she sees them as more than what her colleagues tend to do. Many of the cops and the Black people she meets seem to have an us vs them mentality which she does not share, meaning she struggles to fit in with her co-workers and the community she used to be a part of. Harris does a good job of showing West’s inner turmoil about this but neither her nor the script are really strong enough for this complex topic.

Black and Blue is a decent corrupt cop action movie. There are some lulls in the action but when Alicia West is on the run it’s often tense and entertaining. 3/5.

REVIEW: Snake Eyes (2021)

Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) has been living a nomadic life, trying to learn the secrets of his past when he saves the life of Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji), heir of Arashikage clan. Tommy takes him to his home and gives him the chance to have a new life as a ninja.

Snake Eyes is a sort of reboot/origin story of the character that’s appeared in previous G.I. Joe films but you don’t need to know anything of those films or the characters in order to follow this one.

Snake Eyes is one of those films I’ve seen recently where I’ve liked the characters more than the plot they’re in. That does give the film some leeway with me as if I like the characters, I’ll pretty much just enjoy spending time with them no matter what they’re doing. I don’t know if Snake Eyes will make enough money etc for a sequel to happen, but I’d be more than happy to see Golding’s Snake Eyes and Koji’s Tommy again. Their dynamic was compelling and the actors had decent chemistry and what more can you want from a pair of leads where they each straddle the line between good and bad.

The action sequences in Snake Eyes are a bit of a mixed bag. Some are edited so much that everything feels frantic and it’s hard to see what’s exactly happening. This is a shame when you’ve got actors who know how to fight like Andrew Koji and Iko Uwais in your film as it’d be more impressive to see them fight in one shot. Other sequences are better, one with motorcycles and a moving lorry is pretty good, and some of the general espionage like sequences are often tense and interesting too.

Overall Snake Eyes is a pretty enjoyable film to get lost into this world of ninjas, spies and secret terrorist organisations. It perhaps does try and cram in a bit too much of the G.I. Joes lore to make it connected to the previous films/franchise but it’s still a fun film with interesting characters. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Suicide Squad (2021)

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sends the latest criminal recruits to Task Force X including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), and Peacemaker (John Cena) to the enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese to complete a mission that no one must know about.

The Suicide Squad is the sort of sequel/reboot of 2016’s Suicide Squad. There are a few characters from the last film in this one, namely Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), but you really don’t need to have seen the previous film in order to watch this one, as while they both have the general premise of a bunch of deadly convicts/supervillains getting sent on a secret mission that’s likely to get a lot of them killed it’s a whole new story.

From the outset it’s clear that the violence in The Suicide Squad is going to be very bloody and gratuitous. The violence is often used to humorous effect but depending on your sense of humour it’ll either get old very quickly or will work for you. The Suicide Squad is a very sweary comedy however personally the jokes didn’t often land, and those that did might’ve elicited a smile rather than a full on laugh out loud moment. The humour is vulgar and weird and sometimes juvenile. It’s also often full of in-jokes and references so if the likes of Deadpool don’t work for you, The Suicide Squad might not either.

The action sequences are often entertaining, especially the one-on-one fights. Harley Quinn rescuing herself is a real highlight and Bloodsport and Peacemaker one-upping each other with kills and quips shows off both Elba’s and Cena’s comedic timing.

What The Suicide Squad does better than its predecessor is making you care about a good proportion of these characters, especially the ones we’ve never seen before, and make you believe that these antisocial characters can actually care about one another in their own ways. A big element of Suicide Squad was when a character suddenly said this “team” was his family – something there had never been any sign of before he actually said it. In The Suicide Squad while it’s hard to say these characters are a family, there are the beginnings of bonds of friendship between certain characters thanks to the dialogue and chemistry between certain actors.

Daniela Melchoir as Ratcatcher 2 is brilliant and she and her pet rat Sebastian almost stole the whole film. They are the softer core of this film and her dynamics with both Bloodsport and Rick Flag are great to watch. Naturally with such a sprawling cast some characters don’t stay around for very long and through them you see just how deadly their mission is. On the flipside of that though, with so many characters with no real introduction as to who they are or even what their skills are, when they do die it’s sometimes hard to care.

The Suicide Squad certainly starts with a bang but that intensity and surprises doesn’t quite last the full runtime. The comedic bits can become grating and while most of the action sequences are entertaining, there’s not enough narrative focus to The Suicide Squad to make it truly memorable and the final showdown just feels rather absurd. Director and writer James Gunn’s signature style of needle drops, witty one-liners and some interesting visuals are all over this film but that does make The Suicide Squad feel like it’s more style over substance. 3/5.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run but soon her past catches up with her as she’s reunited with her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and learns that the Red Room she thought she’d long destroyed is still active.

After all this time Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow finally gets her own movie. While I’m certainly pleased that the character, and Scarlett Johansson who has more than a decade with this character, has finally gotten their time to shine, as a film it also feels a bit redundant. Having it set between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War means that there’s no real stakes for Natasha as we know we see her again. However, while her physical safety may be assured, Black Widow does allow more time to examine her psyche and she a few other characters certainly go through the emotional ringer – whether all those emotional beats land is another matter.

The fight sequences are great and having so many aerial shots make the movements seem fluid and helps these scenes standout more compared to other fight sequences in the MCU. The initial confrontation between Natasha and Yelena who haven’t seen each other for decades is a highlight. There’s the usual big explosions and car chases but it’s the one-on-one fight sequences which are the best and highlight how Natasha differs to her fellow superheroes.

With Natasha unable to turn to her Avenger family, she is forced to reconnect with a family from her past. Her dynamic with Yelena is interesting as while Yelena is clearly a more than capable spy and combatant, Natasha quickly falls back into the older sister role. Alexei (David Harbour) is the only Russian super soldier and Melina (Rachel Weisz) round out this family unit as the slippery scientist who you’re never quite sure where her allegiance lies. There’s an easy chemistry between the four actors but Florence Pugh steals just about every scene she’s in. Her Yelena is sarcastic and funny but she’s also hurting from her own experience in the Red Room. She’s also struggling to compartmentalise what this family unit means as she was so young when they were last together and to her, while it was a family of spies and double agents, it felt real.

Black Widow is a simpler MCU film. It’s Natasha facing her past and while the hundreds of Black Widows out there can certainly cause a lot of damage, it’s not framed as the end of the world type scenario. Instead, it’s about saving these young women from a life of trauma and control. However, the idea of the Red Room and these young girls being trained, and even brainwashed, to become master spies and assassins is a dark one and Black Widow never really goes into it more than at the surface level. Natasha’s past is dark and while Johansson does a good job at slowly revealing the layers of Natasha’s guilt and pain and love that’s all mixed together with her feelings for the Red Room and this unconventional family of hers, it often feels like something is missing.

Black Widow is an enjoyable action/spy thriller and there’s some good character work for Natasha and Yelena. While characters like Alexei are fun when they’re on screen (he’s much of the films comedic relief) they’re not particularly memorable afterwards. 3/5.

REVIEW: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

When the Joe’s are betrayed by their President (Jonathan Pryce), the survivors must hide and pool all their resources in order to stop whatever deadly plan he and Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) have put together.

Much like the first film, I’ve seen G.I. Joe: Retaliation once before but it was so long ago, I remembered next to nothing about it. What G.I. Joe: Retaliation has going for it is that it’s a lot better than its predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. As a film G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t exactly great but when you compare it to what came before it’s hard not to think it’s half decent.

While there’s still some advance, sci-fi-esque tech in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, mostly courtesy of Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and his electronic insects, it’s generally a lot more grounded in reality. There are no super suits for the Joes, they are purely military characters, and they’re all American this time.

The surviving Joe’s are led by Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) proving once again that the Rock can help reenergise any franchise. There’s also Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Snake Eyes and his feud with Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-Hun) is still a highlight of this franchise, it’s always nice to see a female badass in these testosterone-heavy films, but Flint is such a generic action man character that anyone could’ve been in that role – I mean, the man isn’t even on the poster. Channing Tatum briefly reprises his role as Duke and has much more charisma this time round and he could’ve easily fitted into the Flint character’s role. Plus, his chemistry with Johnson was really good too.

The action sequence that stands out in G.I. Joe: Retaliation of course features Snake Eyes. The first part is him fighting Storm Shadow in a hallway and how the music drops out so there’s just the echoes of gunfire or swords clashing is really effective. Then there’s the daring escape where he and Jinx (Elodie Yung) are against dozens of ninjas and end up fighting while abseiling down a snowy cliff face. It’s a thrilling sequence and while the film kind of slows down to allow for the Snake Eyes plot which is almost like a side quest to the main plot with the Rock and co. when it looks that good and is that entertaining it’s hard to be mad about it.

The rest of the action sequences are more on the small-scale (compared to the globe-trotting first film). There’s still a lot of gunfire and explosions but there’s also so hand to hand combat scenes and more of an espionage vibe as the Joe’s try to figure out what’s going on with the President. Gotta say Jonathan Pryce is delightfully hammy as the evil President and makes the silliness of the situation almost work.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a half-decent, popcorn, action flick. It doesn’t require too much brain power, there are some cool action sequences and mostly thanks to the Rock, a lot more of the characters are entertaining this time round. 3/5.

REVIEW: Peninsula (2020)

Four years after a zombie virus has spread across the country, South Korea has been quarantined from the rest of the world. A small team led by former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) come back to the peninsula in order to retrieve a truck containing $20 million in cash.

Peninsula is a sequel to Train to Busan, but as it has new characters and is set after the events of the first film it can stand on its own. It’s a similar scenario to 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later really.

I think the best way to go into Peninsula is to not think too much of its predecessor. Train to Busan was like lightning in a bottle in terms of a zombie movie with a lot of heart. Peninsula tries to capture the same emotions with familial relationships, but it doesn’t reach the same heights of Train to Busan.

Gang Dong-won gives a great performance as the tortured but capable Jung-seok. He’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his family as they were fleeing South Korea four years earlier so to go back there and meet other survivors gives him a lot to think about. On the peninsula he meets Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her young daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), and their grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). This little family is very likable and easy to root for but due to there being more characters outside this family unit and the heist/survival plot, they don’t get as much development to make you truly care about them.

As well as the zombie hoards Jung-seok and his comrades also have to deal with the soldiers of a unit who were abandoned by their government in South Korea. These men are mostly sadistic and greedy, looking out for themselves and subjecting any one they find to their cruel games.

The car chases as people try to either get away with the money, avoid the zombies or both are fun though a large part of them are done with easily noticeable special effects. Likewise, while scenes with a handful of zombies are actors in makeup (the zombies still move in an unsettling way and the makeup is very good), often when there’s a lot of them it’s CGI.

One could describe Peninsula as a zombie heist film with hints of Fast and Furious thanks to all the innovative car chases. The way people use lights, sounds and flares to attract or distract the zombies is really interesting and fun. All in all, while it doesn’t really hold a candle to its predecessor, Peninsula is a decent zombie film. 3/5.