BIRDS OF PREY (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Cert 15 Stars 4

Girl power is given a badass makeover in this freewheeling foul-mouthed superhero action comedy, whose double identity is as a raucous relationship breakup party for the social media generation.

Led by Margot Robbie’s gloriously anarchic Harley Quinn, it sees a flock of assorted women, such as Ella Jay Basco’s young pickpocket, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s vigilante, Rosie Perez’s cop and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s super-powered nightclub singer, in pursuit of a missing mafia diamond.

Harley Quinn was first introduced in 2016’s mostly rubbish but wildly successful super-villain adventure, Suicide Squad, but as its standout character, fully deserves this stand-alone spin-off romp.

The now ex-girlfriend of Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, a heartbroken Harley is struggling to embrace independence and recognise her own self-worth.

The film takes place in an alternative timeline to Joaquin’s Phoenix’s BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated version of Joker, and the clown prince of crime is only very briefly glimpsed.

Without the Joker’s protection Harley is now a target for Gotham City’s underworld, not least Ewan McGregor’s enjoyably camp master criminal, Black Mask, who also wants the diamond.

Robbie is a blast as she pours heart, soul and in-your-face attitude into her character, creating a brilliantly spontaneous and irrepressible modern update on Marilyn Monroe’s sweet and sexy screen persona, complete with a nightmarish spin on her famous song and dance number, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

Harley talks directly to the camera as the story flashbacks and zips forward, with director Cathy Yan throwing out the leering camerawork of Suicide Squad in favour of a hyperactive grab-bag of graphics and fun-filled acrobatic action, including a breathless and brilliant rollerskating finale.

Yan and Robbie dress the thin plot as a ‘this is my life’ Youtube-style confessional video, albeit one with Hollywood production values, and once you’ve adjusted to the manic tone and the story kicks in, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Imagine an alternative Spice Girls movie, but one bursting with the character and charisma of talented performers at the top of their game and a far superior soundtrack.

Funny, irreverent, violent, trashy and a celebration of sisterhood with an unmissable message of female empowerment, it’s an irresistible rainbow riot of popcorn fun.

The 3 minute video top 10 box office countdown

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Cert 12A 129mins Stars 4

You won’t believe what you’re seeing in this comic book action adventure as Spider-man hits the high spots in a deliciously deceptive head-spinning romp.

A direct sequel to blockbuster smash, Avengers: Endgame, this is a mischievous mix of sweet high school romcom, fun teenage spy caper and exciting superhero CGI spectacular.

Peter Parker is in romantic pursuit of classmate MJ, on their school’s European vacation, when his costumed alter-ego Spider-man learns heroes don’t get holidays. 

Grumpy secret agent Nick Fury teams Spider-man with superhero Mysterio, which will be a surprise to long-time Spidey fans as Mysterio is one of the web-swinger’s best known arch-villains.

But re-inventing Mysterio as a dimension-hopping hero with a tragic past makes him a more interesting character while also tying this version of Spider-man into last year’s animated Multi-verse adventure.

Parker identifies Mysterio as the man to replace Iron Man as his mentor, and they set about battling the Elementals, extra-dimensional giants with power over air, earth, wind and fire.

Returning with a winning chemistry as Peter Parker and MJ, Brit actor Tom Holland and pop star Zendaya are the beating heart of the film, with her self-contained charisma making MJ the best superhero squeeze since Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, in 1978’s Superman.

And they’re reunited with the key young cast members of Spider-man: Homecoming, and Marvel fan favourites such as Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau and Marisa Tomei reprise their roles as the adult guardians.

Indie movie star Jake Gyllenhaal brings his unique brand of loopy intensity to Mysterio, and while he often gives the impression of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, it’s a useful quality to have when playing a guy trying to save the planet.

Having Parker unveil various old and new Spider-suits is part of a stream of call-backs to previous films, which will have fans cooing in delight.

Plus a pair of fat-rimmed hi-tech spectacles are a knowing wink to Michael Caine’s 1960’s spy, Harry Palmer, and neatly magnify the script’s central concerns.

While the film wears the frothy air of an espionage caper, the tone disguises some very serious thoughts about fake news and multi-media manipulation, while reminding us Parker was employed in other incarnations as a photojournalist.

From dealing with the fallout of Endgame to deciphering what Marvel has in store for Spider-man, there’s a lot to uncover in this, and one of the best secrets is kept until after the credits, so make sure you stay until the absolute end.

SHAZAM!

Cert 12A Stars 4

Magic and monsters cause mayhem in this terrific crowd pleasing superhero romp which doubles as a body swap comedy

This confident seventh instalment in the increasingly lighthearted, bright and colourful, DC Extended Universe, takes place in same world as the recent billion dollar success, Aquaman, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the king of Atlantis to turn up.

Billy is a teenage orphan who while searching for his mother, finds himself endowed with extraordinary powers and unlooked for responsibility.

Following an encounter with a wizard, whenever Billy says the magic word, ‘Shazam’, he’s magically transformed into an adult superhero, with strength, speed and the ability to shoot electric bolts from his fingertips.

Asher Angel is fresh faced and likeable as 14 year old Billy, with an exuberantly gleeful and goofy Zachary Levi, as his super-powered alter ego.

The script owes a lot to Tom Hanks’ 1988 comedy, Big, and pays homage to it during a fight in a department store, while the films energy has the wide-eyed excitable tone of 1980’s kid caper, The Goonies.

As Billy learns to control his powers, the warm family dynamic of his diverse foster family provides an strong emotional grounding. It’s here we meet Faithe Herman, as Billy’s new sister, a delightful pocket-sized scene stealer who’ll win your heart with her charm and humour.

Packed with jokes, this is funnier than Deadpool and has more laughs than Kick Ass, plus it’s also much kinder and far more appropriate for a family audience.

Brit actor Mark Strong played the bad guy in Kick Ass, and appears here as a super-villain who’s hunting Shazam to steal his powers, and is involved in all the flashy CGI action such as magic realms, scary demons, and mid-air fights.

Yet Shazam!’s greatest strength is knowing superheroes were created as a wish fulfilment fantasy for lonely adolescents, and is all the more enjoyable for putting them centre stage.

BLACK PANTHER

Cert 12A 134mins Stars 4

Marvel studios aren’t pussyfooting around with this big beast superhero adventure.

First seen in 2015’s Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa A.K.A. Black Panther.

Back in his African homeland of Wakanda to inherit his father’s throne, T’Challa’s enhanced physical abilities and meteorite-powered suit are of little use against a political coup.

Full of trademark humour this is a typically action packed blockbuster. What separates this from its comic book stablemates is its sweeping multi-generational family saga played out on gorgeous plains of Africa.

Bright bold colours dominate the African influenced design, the soundtrack is tribal and local languages are used, all combining to create an environment unique in the Marvel universe.

Providing African American cast and crew a major Hollywood movie as a stage to strut their stuff is a huge roar for equality and demonstrates the extraordinary depth of talent available.

Among the cast are Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, plus Brit nominated Daniel Kaluuya appears in a key role. Though it’s young Letitia Wright who steals the film.

Ryan Coogler previously directed 2015’s excellent Rocky sequel, Creed. Michael B. Jordan had the starring role there and brings his muscular swagger here as the villainous Killmonger.

Similarly to the Amazons of Wonder Woman, the women are warriors, but also scientists, and are frequently funnier than the men.

There are witty riffs on Disney’s Lion King. While an early interlude in a South Korean featuring a casino and a car chase cheekily presents T’Challa as a James Bond figure, which is sure to wind up the 007 purists.

And it politically unambiguous with Wakanda being a progressive vision of Africa, wealthy, independent, strong and united.

Unlike the recent reboot of Spider-man who had Robert Downey. Jnr’s mega popular Iron Man popping by to boost audience figures, Black Panther has to go it alone.

But this cool cat more than earns his stripes.

JUSTICE LEAGUE

Cert 12A 120mins Stars 4

Wonder Woman whips the boys into heroes in this epic and action packed comic book spectacular.

Fresh from her own blockbuster success, the Amazonian Princess joins Ben Affleck’s Batman in recruiting The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to save the world.

Despited differing degrees of reluctance, they don’t stand a chance under the onslaught of Gal Gadot’s charm offensive. As  the lasso of truth-wielding Wonder Woman, the actress is the team’s most valuable player with Ezra Miller running her a close second, as The Flash.

This superior final part to Henry Cavill’s Superman trilogy follows on from last year’s overlong and doom laden Batman Versus Superman, which saw the death of the Man of Steel.

As the world mourns and turns to hopeless violence, a large horned monster descends at the head of an army of flying man-sized insectoid warriors.

Voiced by Ciaran Hinds, Steppenwolf is intent on seizing ancient three cuboid power sources with which he plans to destroy the Earth.

Picking up speed after a clunky opening, there’s a reduction in the series’ grim bombastic mood and overrides it with plenty of optimism and a greater sense of fun. There’s a change on emphasis from tortured martyrdom to a more crowd pleasing and uplifting tone.

Despite production difficulties a consistent vision has been adhered to throughout the three films. Characters have developed and matured, ideas of duty and sacrifice have been explored, and it goes out with a bang.

Always visually spectacular, the dark palette of previous films is punched up with colour, while John Williams’ famous original 1978 Superman score is sampled. It sends tingles down the spine, and signals a new dawn for truth and justice.

In this determinedly inclusive adventure unity is urged at every opportunity, however Wonder Woman is the star of the show and very much remains in a league of her own.

 

THOR: RAGNAROK

Cert 12A 130mins Stars 3

Gods and monsters battle for interstellar supremacy in the latest Marvel superhero adventure.

It’s a rainbow coloured bridge connecting the Earth-bound adventures of Marvel’s Avengers, to the sci-fi comedy of their Guardians of the Galaxy movies. 

Chris Hemsworth has previously played Thor endearingly dimBut here the Norse God of Thunder is disappointingly transformed into a generic action hero. He’s shorn of his blonde locks, is relieved of his trademark magic hammer and is noticeably more clever than before.

Thor continues his established rivalry with The Incredible Hulk, with the pair forced into gladiatorial combat an alien planet.

It’s ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s gangster, meanwhile Cate Blanchett sports goth fetish chic as the goddess of death, and Tom Hiddleston reprises his role as Thor’s half-brother Loki.

There’s are a stream of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, infantile bickering and a juvenile delight in swearing.

Marvel fans will love the endless in-jokes and there’s sufficient CGI action to keep casual viewers reasonably entertained.

 

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Cert 12A 149mins Stars 5

Earth’s mightiest superheroes return in the most thrilling, destructive and daring adventure of the Marvel franchise.

It’s a full-throttle galaxy-shattering epic which is guaranteed to leave fans slack-jawed by the time the lights come up on the 19th adventure in the series.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America are joined by Thor, Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Guardians of the Galaxy and more, in a desperate bid to save the universe.

Josh Brolin brings a sense of honour and purpose to his gravel-voiced menace in the role of Thanos, the giant alien villain who believes he is the good guy.

Thanos is determined to save the universe from over-population by culling exactly one half of its inhabitants. And if he obtains all six Infinity stones, he will have the power to do so at the snap of his fingers.

And one of the stones is attached to the forehead of Paul Bettany’s hero, Vision, making this a very personal fight for the Avengers, especially for his love interest, Elizabeth’s Olsens’ Scarlet Witch.

As we blast from across the universe in a series of dazzlingly executed fights, humour is key to making us care what happens.

From Spider-Man’s wisecracking, to the verbal spats between Iron-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange, smart visual gags and self-aware references, the script is stuffed with jokes.

It’s purpose is to distract us from from where the story is heading, especially as the eye-opening beginning establishes not everybody is going to survive.

I didn’t imagine it would be possible to shock us to this degree, or Marvel were capable of topping their barnstorming Avenger’s Assemble in 2012. But this is their biggest, boldest and most breathtaking film to date.

The repercussions to the Marvel Connected Universe will be felt long after the sequel lands next year. I cannot wait.