Onward review

For F*** Magazine

ONWARD

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast : Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 5 March 2020
Rating : PG

Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt take a detour into another fantastical realm in this animated adventure comedy from Pixar.

Holland and Pratt voice elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot respectively. They live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), their father having passed away when Barley was very young and before Ian had any memory of him. On the day of Ian’s 16th birthday, he is gifted a magical staff and an accompanying scroll – inscribed upon it is a spell that could bring their father back to life for just one day. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch and only their father’s legs materialise. Ian and Barley must go on a quest in search of the Phoenix gem to bring all of their father back before the 24-hour window expires.

Onward uses its lead voice actors to great effect, with Holland and Pratt both playing to type – Holland’s Ian is the awkward reserved young man who’s coming of age, while Pratt’s Barley is enthusiastic and boisterous if irresponsible. The movie hinges upon Ian and Barley’s relationship as siblings and does a good job of showing how even though they fight and disagree, they ultimately love each other and must be there for each other especially since they have lost their father.

This being Pixar, the animation is superb, even if the film is not quite as remarkable design-wise as some of the studio’s other efforts. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate set-pieces, save for a big climactic battle sequence. There’s still a great attention to detail and there is amusement to be derived from the film’s milieu of a modern world populated by magical creatures. There are several inspired gags that are set up and paid off nicely, as well as a good amount of physical comedy – the film gets a lot of mileage out of the floppy “dummy” that stands in for the missing upper body of Ian and Barley’s father.

Octavia Spencer voices Corey, a Manticore who runs a tavern and whose glory days are somewhat behind her. The film includes a subplot in which Laurel seeks Corey’s help to find her missing sons and ensure their safety. Corey makes for a fun side character.

While Onward has the novelty of being Pixar’s first real foray into the high fantasy genre, its plot is extremely generic – it’s a chosen one hero’s journey, right down to the rite of passage that takes place on a significant birthday. It feels like the movie has bursts of inspiration, with serviceable story beats in between. Almost all of Pixar’s movies can be classified as road trip stories in some form or another, and Onward is no exception. We know our heroes will meet colourful characters and get into scrapes along the way, but it feels like Onward falls just a bit short of its full imaginative potential. It lacks the poignancy and the considered observations of other Pixar films – it is effectively emotional and moving, but also often in danger of coming off as emotionally manipulative.

The filmmakers demonstrate a palpable affection for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and tabletop/card games of their ilk. The film even includes two actual D&D monsters, which appear courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. Once the target of the 80s “Satanic panic”, Onward is yet another sign of how D&D has entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness.

A big part of what makes the movie work is that there is a personal component for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, who also helmed Monster’s University for Pixar. Scanlon’s father passed away when he was one and his brother was three, leaving behind a tape recording of him simply saying “hi” and “bye”. The film’s palpable emotional resonance is a result of Scanlon bringing this personal history to the table.

Summary: Onward’s plot may be an old-fashioned hero’s journey and its fantasy elements might be familiar even though they’re blended with modern day trappings, but there’s sincerity and joy in this tale of brotherhood and bereavement. This is not quite Pixar’s best, but it’s still going to find a devoted audience.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Birds of Prey review

For F*** Magazine

BIRDS OF PREY

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast : Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Genre: Action/Crime/Comics
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 6 February 2020
Rating : NC16

The DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs. While the franchise has its ardent supporters, moviegoers at large have decided that in the cinematic battle between the two big boys in comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has emerged victorious. DC’s not going to take that lying down, and as the DCEU heads towards each of the movies being more of their own thing instead of having the close interconnectivity that was originally planned, there’s the opportunity for some exciting alchemy. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one such opportunity.

Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has struck out on her own and left the Joker – for good, as she tells herself. On a mission of reinvention, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of mob boss and nightclub proprietor Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is after Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who has stolen something priceless from him. Also caught in the mix are vengeful mafia daughter Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer-turned Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who wants to bring Sionis to justice. These colourful characters collide on the battleground that is Gotham City as Harley brings her signature blend of chaos to the proceedings.

Birds of Prey knows and embraces what it is. This is a very smart adaptation –  screenwriter Christina Hodson, working closely with Robbie (who also produced the film), changes a lot from the comics but also combines the pieces in a way that works. The character of Harley Quinn is not a member of the Birds of Prey, and interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her a member of the team – she’s narrating their origin story. Harley is an unreliable narrator, which gives the film license to mess around with the structure, rewinding and fast-forwarding as Harley gives telling the story her best shot. Director Cathy Yan has style to spare, and unlike several earlier DCEU movies, this isn’t one that feels like it has been obviously been meddled with by studio executives. There will inevitably be comparisons to Deadpool, but perhaps Birds of Prey owes a bit more of the oft-overlooked Tank Girl.

Birds of Prey is messy, but it’s messy in a way that feels natural. Robbie has only played Harley Quinn once before, yet displays such ownership of the character, understanding and embodying her in a way that demonstrates her investment in the character and the source material. The fear that many DC Comics fans had going in was that Robbie had turned a Birds of Prey movie into a Harley Quinn movie – this movie feels like a Harley Quinn movie that has collided with a Birds of Prey movie in a “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!”/”You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” way.

The movie’s messiness may work for some more than it does for others. The device of Harley as unreliable narrator means that what should be a straightforward narrative is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. The movie must cover multiple back-stories and does so efficiently, but it can still sometimes feel like it’s spreading itself too thin, the way other comic book hero team-up movies sometimes do.

Some deviations from the source material can be difficult to be come to terms with – Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle is often instrumental in forming the Birds of Prey but is entirely absent here. Harley has just one pet hyena because it was too expensive to animate two – not a big deal. The biggest change from the comics is the character of Cassandra Cain, and this doesn’t quite work. The character bears almost no similarities to her namesake from the comics, who was a mute, deadly daughter of assassins who eventually became Batgirl. This iteration of Cassandra has more in common with Catwoman supporting character Holly Robinson. None of this is Ella Jay Basco’s fault – she plays the mouthy kid with enough attitude and is often entertaining in the role – but it is frustrating that there technically is a Batgirl in a Birds of Prey movie, just not the right one.

Margot Robbie is a great Harley. This movie further explores the characters flaws and her desire to be a part of something bigger. That something might not necessarily be the Birds of Prey, but it is fun to watch her pop in and interact with the team just as it is forming.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Huntress – the crossbow-fu is dazzling stuff and she manages to be both formidable and endearing. After the brutal murder of her family at the hands of a rival mob, Helena trained to be an assassin and as such has no social skills to speak of. Winstead plays both the icy killer and the awkward member of the friend group equally well.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a riveting character – she’s trying to get out from under the thumb of Roman Sionis and is suppressing a power that she doesn’t quite know how to use. In the comics, Black Canary is an expert martial artist who favours kicking, and there’s quite a lot of that here.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is meant to be a cliché, a hard-drinking, one-liner-dispensing caricature of a tough cop from an 80s movie, which she pulls off well.

Ewan McGregor is having the time of his life. He’s over-the-top and goofy but also suitably intimidating and unhinged. Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Sionis’ creepy, sycophantic lackey and they both play off each other well. Each time McGregor enters a scene, there’s the sense that he will not leave until he has stolen the show.

The film boasts some of the best action sequences of any DCEU film yet. The integration of gymnastics into Harley’s fights is done exceedingly well. The fights are stylised but also feel tactile – prepare to wince as many, many bones get broken with a loud crunch. There’s a motorbike-roller skates-car chase that is beautifully executed, and as mentioned above, all the crossbow stuff is impressive. Stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Chad Stahelski of 87Eleven Action Design craft many enjoyable action sequences that while not as slick as what might be seen in a John Wick movie, do fit the overall feel of the film.

Summary: Birds of Prey is enjoyably grimy, a comic book movie that is breezily entertaining, packed with violent action and finished off with a generous sprinkle of zaniness. It’s a lot more cohesive than many previous DCEU outings and left this reviewer wanting to see more of these characters. Now can we please get that Gotham City Sirens movie already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong