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Non-Review Review: Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is a sweet, if slightly uneven, ode to the act of reclaiming problematic art.

The concept of Brigsby Bear is simple. James Pope is a twenty-something-year-old manchild who has grown sheltered from the outside world, living with his parents in a converted shelter locked away from the world. James’ only interaction with the outside world is through the internet, where he maintains contact with fans of the only show still broadcast on the airwaves, the eponymous anthropomorphised bear.

Bearing his soul.

However, one day James discovers that this is all an elaborate lie, that the world does not work the way that he thought it did. Brigsby Bear is positioned at the centre of this betrayal, with James discovering that the show was never what it appeared to be. As James struggles to come to terms with the reality of his situation, he finds himself struggling to make peace with the bear at the centre of these amateurish and endearing morality plays.

Brigsby Bear suffers from tonal issues, struggling to balance the darkness at its core with the whimsy on its surface. However, the movie plays as a compelling study of trauma and recovery, of the power of fannish obsession, and the art of taking back art that has been tainted or undermined by subsequent revelations. Indeed, Brigsby Bear is arguably more relevant now than it was when it was produced.

“Disney are really going to extremes to stop me leaking details on The Last Jedi.”

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Marvel and Netflix’s The Punisher (Review)

Given how Iron Fist turned out, The Punisher could have been a catastrophic misfire.

Iron Fist was a show that landed at the wrong cultural moment, a tale of thoughtless cultural appropriation landing right at the moment when pop culture was engaging with tough questions about the tendency of western entertainment to co opt foreign culture for its own amusement. Of course, Iron Fist was also a terrible television series on its own terms, with a variety of fundamental problems; an awkward lead, a convoluted plot, flat action sequences. The film’s clumsy blundering into the middle of that larger culture discussion was icing on the proverbial cake.

“The only person you’re punishing is yourself.”
Yes, the first episode includes this line. Completely unironically.

On paper, The Punisher seems ready to wade into a similar debate. By its nature, The Punisher is the story of an angry white man with a gun, and it will arrive on Netflix forty-seven days after what was arguably the bloodiest mass shooting in recent history and twelve days after another recent massacre. More than that, The Punisher arrives at a point in time when there are larger debates about the use of force in dealing with suspected criminals, and the lack of consequences for law enforcement representatives who have shot and killed minorities. This is a minefield for The Punisher to navigate.

The good news is that The Punisher (largely) avoids this potential minefield. The bad news is that The Punisher does this by largely not being a show about The Punisher.

Skullduggery.

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Non-Review Review: Justice League

The Parademons, the monstrous zombie bugs at the heart of Justice League, smell fear. It is a lucky thing that they don’ smell desperation, because otherwise they’d eat the movie alive.

Justice League is not a movie so much as a two-hour attempt at atonement. It is an extended apology from Warner Brothers to the most vocal internet denizens, an obvious attempt to backpedal away from the controversial and divisive (and provocative) attempts to jump-start their shared comic book universe with Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Richard Donner’s Superman inspired audiences to believe that a man could fly; Justice League serves as evidence that a film franchise can grovel.

The Just Us League.

Justice League is contrite and submissive. Anything resembling a jagged edge has been carefully sanded down, anything resembling a unique identity stripped from the film. Justice League has listened to the internet’s overblown criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, and decided that the best response is to offer something generic and appeasing. Justice League has the feeling of a studio mandated checklist captured on celluloid, a list comprised primarily of “don’t”s; don’t run over two hours, don’t be so dark, don’t be pretentious, don’t be political.

The result is a movie that feels defined by what it isn’t, an empty space much larger than that created by the absence of Superman. It is a movie without any ambition or any personality. It wants so desperately to be loved, but ultimate feels hollow.

Out of their League.

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Non-Review Review: Daddy’s Home 2

Daddy’s Home 2 is awkward and broad, with too few laughs and too much dead air.

As the title suggests, Daddy’s Home 2 is the sequel to the similarly uninspired Daddy’s Home, in which Will Ferrell finds himself competing for the affection of his stepchildren with their biological father, played by Mark Wahlberg. Daddy’s Home 2 seeks to add some extra excitement into the mix by bringing another generation into the mix; John Lithgow joins the cast as father to Will Ferrell’s character, while Mel Gibson is cast in the role of withholding parent to Mark Wahlberg’s emotionally stunted adult.

Bad dads.

Daddy’s Home 2 largely tries to coast on the charm of these four male leads, bouncing scenarios and concepts off them. Some of these jokes are diverting, but Daddy’s Home 2 is largely free from big belly laughs. Outside of a couple of very effective set pieces, Daddy’s Home 2 sets itself the bar of “reasonably diverting.” The film occasionally stumbles past that, but there is never a sense of Daddy’s Home 2 has been honed or crafted. Even at ninety-six minutes, the movie feels bloated and over-extended.

Daddy’s Home 2 tries to paper over its weaknesses with an emphasis on the charm of its four leading performers, most shamelessly in its final act when Will Ferrell all but addresses the audience directly as he sings the praises of the cinema as a communal experience in which people might be alone with everybody. Daddy’s Home 2 is a film that never pushes itself too hard, content to wallow in its own mediocrity.

It’s not that funny.

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Non-Review Review: Suburbicon

Suburbicon is a disjointed mess of a feature film. It is a gonzo black comedy that never quite coalesces, but sustains itself with enough energy that it never completely falls apart.

Suburbicon is a bizarre hybrid. Watching the movie, one gets a sense that the film has been stitched together from two core stories. Indeed, this was very much the case; the central plot of Suburbicon was original written by the Coen Brothers as a grotesque comedy of murder and mayhem, while the movie’s prominent subplot was grafted on later by director George Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov to add a sense of social realism to this late fifties Americana. These two elements never quite cohere, which means Suburbicon never feels truly focused.

Stress testing.

There is a telling moment around half-way through the film, when an insurance investigator has stopped by the family residence at the heart of the story. Investigating a suspicious claim, the gentleman is clearly fishing. “In the end,” he reflects philosophically, “it all comes down to one word.” Without any elaboration, he allows his mind to wonder and the conversation to drift. He only returns to that  train of thought when guided by his interviewee. “What is it?” they ask. He is lost. “What?” They clarify, “The word?” The investigator takes a moment to get back on track.

That small conversational aside captures what is most appealing and most infuriating about Suburbicon, a movie that lacks a strong core and finds itself caught between two very different stories without any strong focus on either. Suburbicon is never boring, packed with strange turns and driven by a pitch black sense of humour. However, it never seems entire sure of what it is.

Cycles of violence.

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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

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CinÉireann – Issue 1 (November 2017)

Sin é Cin É!

Announcing CinÉireann, a new monthly magazine focusing on Irish film. It’s full of interesting and exciting news about Irish cinema, including films in development and on release, as well as long-form articles on everything from Irish filmmakers to co-productions to the changing multimedia landscape.

It is largely the work of the wonderful Niall Murphy over at Scannain, and I am thrilled to have provided two articles to the opening issue. (One of them is even the sort-of cover story, a piece focusing on the themes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.) There’s a host of talent involved. You can read CinÉireann as a digital magazine directly. You can even subscribe and get future issues delivered to you directly.

Or click the picture below.