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Non-Review Review: Hold the Dark

“Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?”

An enlightening piece of work.

In the American consciousness, the frontier is a haunted place.

In some ways, it is a concept distinct to the United States, at least in contrast to Europe. The boundaries within Europe were established centuries ago; although they might shift and bend, the contours of the continent have been known to the people who inhabited it for millennia. In contrast, to the settlers who arrived from Europe, the North American frontier was a mystery and an enigma. The frontier is distinct a border space. A border implies a point of collision that might be crossed, the neatly delineated boundary between one place and another.

Let Bisons be Bisons.

The frontier is something entirely different. It represents the edge of reason, and limit of what is knowable. To reach the end of the frontier is to reach the end of “the West.” In geographical terms, off the western shore of the North American continent lies “the East.” In more abstract terms, the American frontier is an imaginary space rather than a literal one. After all, Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film – Green Room – suggested that the frontier could be found somewhere  surprisingly close to urbanity, only a few hours away from the familiar comforts of Portland.

Hold the Dark takes place in a decidedly more remote environment, against the snow backdrops of Alaska. Saulnier goes to great lengths to illustrate the isolation of that environment, paying particular attention to how long it takes Russell Core to reach the small Alaskan town that serves as the starting point of the story before venturing out into the real wilderness. At another point, Vernon Slone stops by an old hostel on his travels. Asked for his point of origin, he’s informed that there was no road connecting the two places. “Not directly,” he clarifies.

Shedding some light on the matter.

As with the snow-covered western wilderness in Wind River, there is a sense that Hold the Dark unfolds against the very limit of the American frontier, at the point where the continent has ceased to provide for the settlers and instead has become something harsh and unforgiving. It is a place that has been settled by humans, but is perhaps untouched by humanity. If Green Room allowed Saulnier to explore the vipers coiled underneath familiar rocks, then Hold the Dark is a story about the animals that hunt at the very edge of civilisation.

Green Room was effectively a cynical and grim take on the familiar horror plot that warned of the dangers lurking off the backroads, just out of sight. Hold the Dark is the story of a hunt for a dangerous predator in a harsh environment. In both films, the monster looks very familiar.

Mask appeal.

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Non-Review Review: The Land of Steady Habits

“You’re mean,” observes a potential romantic partner of Anders Hill, around the halfway point of The Land of Steady Habits.

It would be reductive to suggest that this is the most bracing or cutting piece of character work in The Land of Steady Habits, but it is not entirely unfair. The Land of Steady Habits is very much a story of upper-class social anxiety, of wealthy characters without any real problems in their lives who instead fixate on the kinds of problems that less well-off people probably wish that they had. Anders Hill is a prime example. A solemn and depressive figure who has become alienated from his previously idyllic existence, Anders is a character who is entirely responsible for his current predicament.

Going steady.

In some ways, this is very typical of the work of writer and director Nicole Holofcener, who has adapted The Land of Steady Habits from a novel by Ted Thompson. The film’s status as an adaptation accounts for some of the details that distinguish the film from Holofcener’s other work, most notably the focus on a male (rather than a female) protagonist, but The Land of Steady Habits is very much of a piece with Holofcener’s other work. It is a wry and acerbic study of people who have everything except what they actually need, and who stumble around causing emotional carnage while looking for that something.

With that in mind, Holofcener’s films live and die based on the charm of the leading characters – on how much the audience is drawn into the hollow void at the centre of their existence. By that measure, The Land of Steady Habits is a mixed bag at best. Ben Mendelsohn is great as the pathetic and contemptible Anders Hill, an impotent affluent man-child who seems capable of mustering charm for only a few scarce minutes at a time. However, Anders himself is not anybody that it seems particularly interesting or exciting to spend ninety-eight minutes with.

Sofa, so good.

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Non-Review Review: A Simple Favour

At one point around the two-thirds mark of the film, an insurance claims investigator offers a recap of all the twists and turns of A Simple Favour to that point. “It’s bananas!” she observes.

She’s not wrong. A Simple Favour is modern film noir with a pitch black sense of humour, populated with two femme fatales and driven with an infectious enthusiasm. It is not a parody or a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a demented celebration. This is a film that revels in the tropes and the conventions of these sorts of layoured labyrinthine narratives, processing all the sharp turns and wacky reveals with an eager (and effectively disconcerting) smile on its face.

Picture perfect.

A Simple Favour often feels like an extended homage to the work of Gillian Flynn, filtered through the lens of Paul Feig. This combination works very well, going down like the kind of martini served in a freezing glass with ice-cold gin. Both Flynn and Feig share an acerbic sense of humour, and tendency to pick at the gender roles usually assigned by society. A Simple Favour might share some of its DNA with Gone Girl or Sharp Objects, but it also feels like the vicious and biting younger sibling of Bridesmaids or Spy.

A Simple Favour does suffer a little bit from the comparisons to Flynn’s work, and occasionally veers slightly too far into broad comedy, but it is powered by a sophisticated charm threaded with a pitch black sense of humour.

Red flags.

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Non-Review Review: The Predator

The Predator adopts the as-ambitious-as-it-is-counter-productive of smirkingly mocking big budget franchise films while also actually being a big budget franchise film.

Shane Black’s sequel to the beloved eighties actioner is jarring, caught between two masters. On the one hand, Black writes the characters in his patented self-ware style, with banter and wry liners to beat the band. However, these characters are then dropped right into the middle of a fairly brain-dead paint-by-numbers action film that is clearly structured to feel like a contemporary franchise foundation stone. There is a constant push-and-pull between these two extremes, which is disorienting and distracting.

The Predator took the reviews rather well.

The Predator never seems sure whether it is a good old-fashioned fun-dumb blockbuster mocking the pretensions of modern franchise films or alternatively a smart self-aware action comedy picking at the tropes of fun dumb action films. It’s never entirely clear whether the issues with The Predator are playful self-parody or just terrible plotting; whether Shane Black is not taking any of this seriously or whether he is taking all of it much too seriously.

Whenever The Predator seems to be working, it veers too sharply one way or the other and the audience gets whiplash.

Pred-locks.

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Non-Review Review: The House With a Clock in Its Walls

There is something quite charmingly old-fashioned about The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which often feels like a nostalgic paean to the kind of children’s films that they simple do not make any longer.

Director Eli Roth might feel like a strange fit for the film, given his filmography to this point is effectively a whistle-stop tour of twenty-first century exploitation cinema; the director made his name with the Hostel films, but has also worked on movies like Cabin Fever, Knock Knock and the recent Death Wish remake. It seems strange that Eli Roth would be tapped to direct a family-friendly adaptation of a forty-five year old novel.

Stars in their eyes.

Then again, there is a long history of niche and exploitation filmmakers serving as unlikely storytellers of child-friendly narratives. Robert Rodriguez is perhaps best known for his work on Desperado or From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, but he is also responsible for the Spy Kids franchise. Older film fans will recognise George Miller for his work on the Mad Max franchise, while younger audience members will forever associate him with Happy Feet. There is a clear precedent here.

More than that, there’s perhaps a logic at play in these sorts of transitions. At its best, and perhaps given the most charitable reading, Roth’s filmography suggests the demented glee of a teenager bringing his feverish imaginings to life. There is a clear sense of nostalgia and yearning in Roth’s work, even beyond straight-up remakes like The Green Inferno. Indeed, that nostalgia seems perfectly suited to The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which is just a shade darker and weirder than a lot of modern children’s films, but in keeping with the tone of the film’s of Roth’s childhood.

Clocking in.

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Non-Review Review: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger could do with being a little stranger.

Gothic horror stories about haunted houses are often about more than just the building or the estate itself. They often serve as something at once larger and smaller; a prism through which the storyteller might examine both the society around the haunted house and the family unit trapped within. This is true of most haunted house stories, no matter where or when they are set. The Amityville Horror is about much broader familial anxieties than a mere spectre.

Stranger Things…

At the same time, it feels particularly true when applied to the more traditional and old-fashioned gothic haunted house stories, the kind of tales about old family estates in the middle of nowhere, that had once served to anchor political and economic power in a particular area, but had since watched modernity pass them by. These are the sorts of creepy houses frequently glimpsed in period pieces or older stories, whether in tales set in the England of Wuthering Heights or the New England of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Little Stranger belongs to this particularly strain of haunted house horror, unfolding on a once grand estate that is slowly surrendering itself to a rapidly-changing world. It is the story of a house in decay and decline, falling apart as it struggles to find its place in a world that might slowly shed the trappings of class hierarchies and where power might no longer be anchored exclusively in those families wealthy enough to own and maintain these grand estates.

A sorry estate of affairs…

The Little Stranger works better as a mood than as a story, a slowly unravelling portrait of a household coming face-to-face with its own obsolescence, unsure both of whether it can do anything to arrest this collapse or even whether it wants to. The tale maintains a steady sense of unease across its runtime, largely down to a tremendous performance from Domhnall Gleeson as a character who remains ambiguous and unsettling even as he positions himself at the centre of the narrative.

The Little Stranger suffers from a fairly conventional and predictable plot, with little novel or insightful to say, relying on a series of revelations that are quite clear even fifteen minutes into the two-hour runtime. The Little Stranger is a little too familiar for its own good, a little too comfortable and sedate to really pack the necessary punch.

Farraday is far away.
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Non-Review Review: Crazy Rich Asians

The romantic comedy is, by its nature, an aspirational genre.

At its core, the romantic comedy is built around the idea that love conquers all, that soul mates exist, that there is one person in a million for every other person and that they are destined to find one another. The romantic comedy is aspirational in its presentation of love: the idea that everybody lives happily ever after, that every obstacle can be navigated if two people love one another. Of course, reality doesn’t always work out like that. This is just one reason why we tell stories; not just to tell us how the world is, but to insist how it should be.

Crazy, stupid, rich love.

This is perhaps why the romantic comedy is so often wedded to other fantasies; consider the ostentatious wealth depicted in most romantic comedies, but especially in Nancy Meyers films like It’s Complicated or Home Again. Romantic comedies present an idealised depiction of family life, where all differences can be reconciled and where practical concerns need never even be articulated. Even romantic comedies that aren’t explicitly about wealthy families luxuriate in a fantasy of wealth; very few families could realistically afford even the starter pack romantic comedy wedding.

There is nothing inherently wrong with aspiration, to be clear. Action movies and superhero films tend to indulge in a similarly idealised fantasy of heroism and strength of will, imagining worlds where many of the complications of everyday life can be shuffled into the background or wrestled into submission. However, the aspirations baked into romantic comedies are more tangible and more immediate, more recognisable even in their outlandishness.

“I mean, I’m rich. But I’m not crazy rich.”

Very few people will find themselves liberating a soccer stadium from terrorism, but most audience members have romantic relationships and many have weddings and even families. Even those audience members who don’t have their own spouses and children would have grown up within something resembling a familial structure. As a result, even the most outlandish romantic comedy offers something that more closely approximates lived experience.

Crazy Rich Asians fundamentally understands this aspirational nature of romantic comedies, and takes a great deal of pleasure in its display (and even celebration) of absurd wealth. The film’s title is a bold statement of purpose. There is something exhilarating in that.

Love don’t rom (com).

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