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Non-Review Review: Maze

Maze is a gritty well-constructed psychological thriller, documenting the famous escape of thirty-eight inmates from the eponymous prison in 1983.

Written and directed by Stephen Burke, focuses its attention on two central characters who serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Larry Marley is a veteran member of the IRA, who survived hunger strike and is looked for a cause around which he might rally the movement. Gordon Close is the warden in charge of maintaining order in a prison packed with murderers and terrorists. Both men are trapped, whether by iron bars, concrete walls or political ideology.

Burke infuses Maze with a powerful cynicism, a clear frustration and contempt for a cycle of violence and hatred that perpetuates itself. The prison environment becomes a metaphor for the world created by the authorities and paramilitaries, a climate in which both sides serve as wardens and prisoners, ensuring that nobody is ever truly free. Maze is constructed as a very sterile film, largely desaturated, with Burke keeping the camera steady and often at a distance.

Maze is perhaps a little bit too conventional in places, a little too anchored in the routine expected from a prison break film and a little heavy-handed in its symbolism and thematic ruminations. While Burke avoids getting drawn into either side of this battle of wills, resisting the urge to glamourise or romanticise the escapees, there are points at which Maze feels a little too straightforward, trapped by the expectations of this sort of narrative. Still, the result is a thoughtful and well put-together film.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Juggernaut (Review)

Juggernaut is not a great episode of television.

The episode has any number of key problems. Most obviously, the episode illustrates how little the character of B’Elanna Torres has actually grown since Parallax, without even pausing to acknowledge everything that has happened in between in episodes like Extreme Risk. More than that, the episode’s core themes are undermined by an incredibly cynical conclusion that might work in the context of a larger character arc, but which doesn’t work when rooted in the series’ episodic approach to storytelling.

Calm under pressure.

However, in spite of all these fundamental flaws that hobble Juggernaut as a piece of television narrative, there is quite a lot to like here. This is very pointed a big “action” story told in blockbuster mode, evoking episodes like Timeless. It is all about broad strokes, ticking clocks and epic stakes. Juggernaut is fundamentally a runaway train story crossed with The Phantom of the Opera, which is almost perfectly within the show’s comfort zone. More than that, Juggernaut actually figures out how to do something vaguely interesting with the Malon before they disappear.

Juggernaut is a highly enjoyable episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Here there be monsters…

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Non-Review Review: Kingsman – The Golden Circle

If Kingsman captured the nastiness of the early Roger Moore Bond movies, then Kingsman: The Golden Circle emulates the indulgent bloat of the later Roger Moore installments.

Part of the appeal of Kingsman was that it captured (and laid bare) the inherent ugliness running beneath the surface of the early Roger Moore movies, films like Live and Let Die or The Man With the Golden Gun. In many respects, Kingsman felt like a Roger Moore Bond movie that was acutely aware of how awful it was, willing to be transparent in its unpleasantness; whether in its sexual politics, in its casual violence, in its portrayal of individuals with disabilities. Kingsman took a lot of the sheen of nostalgia off those Sunday afternoon actioners, and revelled in the dissonance.

The Golden Circle is nowhere near as sharp and pointed. Instead, in its indulgence evokes the overstuffed and bloated feeling of the late Roger Moore films, of movies like Moonraker, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Indeed, The Golden Circle seems coyly aware of that. What point could there be in casting Halle Berry in the thankless role of a member of an American counterpart to the eponymous British organisation, except to consciously nod towards Die Another Day, the belated tribute to the late Moore era?

The Golden Circle is a mess of a sequel, a film so in love with itself that it seems genuinely indifferent to anybody watching from audience.

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Non-Review Review: The Ritual

The Ritual is a fairly conventional horror movie that is slightly elevated by a number of nice touches.

The Ritual is pretty predictable piece of horror, at least in the broad strokes. A group of friends set out on an international adventure together, tracking into the wild. The group is tied together by a common loss, but there are all manner of silent (and not so silent) resentments simmering beneath the surface. Journeying to Sweden, the quartet embark upon a hike into the wilderness. When fate intervenes, and forces them to cut their trip short, they make a choice to take a turn off the beaten track. They quickly come to regret that particular decision.

The Ritual belongs to a familiar genre of modern horror, the tale of adult friends who wander off into the wilderness and find themselves confronted by something primal and horrific; The Descent, The Blair Witch, Cabin Fever. Of course, these are all the descendants of classic horror movies offering similar warnings about daring to wander off the beaten track; The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is very little in the basic form of The Ritual that will catch many audience members off-guard, even in the jump scares.

The Ritual is elevated by technique, by attention to detail from writer Joe Barton and director David Bruckner. The Ritual never catches the audience off guard by zigging when one might expect it to zag, but it occasionally teases the possibility of zigging. There are any number of little touches that charm, minor subversions of horror movie conventions that enrich the more predictable beats. The film looks impressive, is paced nicely, and is very well cast. While none of this allows The Ritual to transcend its more stock qualities, it does add up to a well-made film.

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Non-Review Review: Home Again

Home Again is an attempt at a classic screwball comedy where anything resembling a hard edge has been softened to a smooth felt.

Writer and director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is clearly hoped to construct an old-school Hollywood farce, centring on a relatively recently singled mother who finds her world turned upside down when three handsome young strangers move into her guest house down the end of her garden. Naturally, Alice Kinney cannot anticipate how quickly these three young aspiring film makers will disrupt her family life, but the situation quickly escalates in a relatively unthreatening manner.

Home Again has a solid premise and a charmingly committed performance from Reese Witherspoon, but the movie feels far too gentle to really work. There is something strangely bloodless about Home Again, which means that the movie often struggles to get its own pulse racing. There is a sense that Home Again is far too worried about the possibility of offending anyone, even its own characters. Home Again is a film full of selfish, shortsighted and manipulative characters, but it never allows them to embrace those qualities in a way that might threaten the happy ending.

Home Again feels far too comfortable in itself to really work.

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Oh My God: Modern Cinematic Depictions of the Almighty…

Religion is understandably one of the great cinematic themes.

After all, religion provides a way of making sense of a seemingly chaotic world, of imposing order upon the universe. More than that, it connects into any number of other rich themes, from man’s place in the grand scheme of things to the art of creation. However, religion is understandably a subject that needs to be treated with some delicacy, joining sex and politics on topics to be avoided in dinner table conversation. Of course, there has always been a market for religious subject matter in cinema.

Classic Hollywood produced any number of broad religious epics for public consumption, films like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. These stories blended familiar biblical narratives with large-scale spectacle, offering reassuring tales of conventional heroics often anchored in Christian iconography. These biblical epics faded from view towards the end of the sixties; perhaps tellingly, they faded out of view around the same time as that other American creation myth, the western.

However, there remains a market for religious entertainment. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of smaller Christian-based movie studios producing wholesome narratives couched in religious language and imagery. Films like Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead are clearly calibrated to appeal to a very particular market instead of a broader audience, akin to specialty cinema like Bollywood. However, entire studios exist to feed this market and provide a solid return on a reasonable budget; just look at Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage.

Nic Cage doesn’t get raptured. It turns out God has seen the remake of The Wicker Man.

While these specialty studios are offering a much more conventional and old-school depiction of divinity and religion, there is something interesting happening in more mainstream cinema. The twenty-first century has seen a number of high-profile creators grappling with strong religious themes in explicitly Christian terms, and – in doing so – offering a number of provocative and subversive interpretations of God.

Note: the post will include spoilers for mother! If you have not seen the film yet, proceed at your own peril.

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Non-Review Review: mother!

mother! is a vicious and visceral parable.

For all its flaws, mother! is never less than compelling. It is an ambitious piece of work, a piece of filmmaking that really knows what it wants and really goes for it, with little regard for the audience’s comfort or for the conventions of storytelling. mother! is an absurdist and surrealist narrative, one that makes no apologies for its more bizarre twists or brazen brutality. Aronofsky has conceded that he wrote the first draft of mother! in ten days, a much shorter turnaround than most of his films. It shows in the best possible way, with mother! feeling like a gonzo fever dream.

There are problems, to be fair. mother! is probably strongest in its opening acts, when it is still structured as a mystery to the audience, when the uncanny aspects of the script are creeping in around the edge of the narrative and the story supports any number of allegorical interpretations. This otherworldliness carries over to the second half, when it is paired with an intensity and momentum that prevents mother! from ever completely losing its footing. At the same time, the conclusion feels overly literal and blunt, sacrificing ambiguity for purity of vision.

While this is a serious enough flaw from a narrative perspective, it is hard to complain too much. mother! is energetic and invigourating, brash and bold. It is a movie that feels completely and utterly unlike a relatively high-profile mainstream cinematic release, the studio committing wholeheartedly to Aronofsky’s vision in a manner that is never less than endearing. mother! is pure and unfiltered Aronofsky, with the flavour only overwhelming in the final third.

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